After watching Philadelphia cut through the black and gold like a knife going through a tub of warm butter in Games 1 and 2, the question on everyone’s mind is, “can the Penguins beat the Flyers?” The answer is yes.
But first, a history lesson. Step into my time machine, if you will, and set the date for April 26, 1992. Fresh off a dismal 7-2 Game 4 loss to Washington, the Penguins were hanging onto their playoff lives by an anorexic thread. Fueled by the inspired play of Peter Bondra, Al Iafrate, and the much-despised Dino Ciccarelli, the Capitals had raced to a 3-1 series lead. Worse yet, the Caps were beating the defending Cup champs at their own run-and-gun game.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s precisely the predicament facing our present-day Penguins.
Fortunately, two of the ’92 squad’s most respected members, Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis, approached coach Scotty Bowman with a radical plan.
“Mario came to me the morning of the fifth game and said, ‘Why don’t we surprise them and play the game close to the vest. Tight, tight, tight,’” Bowman recalled. “I’d never pushed a lot of defensive hockey on this team, but since it was Mario who suggested it….”
“We knew if we could play that type of game and wait for our chances, we had the better team and we knew we could win,” Lemieux said.
The defense-first strategy worked like a charm. The Pens surprised the over-confident Capitals by sweeping the final three games of the series, paving the way for a second Stanley Cup.
As the old saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. Dan Bylsma should follow Bowman’s lead and switch to a more defensive scheme such as the left wing lock.
The system was developed by the Czechs in the 1970s as a way of defending against the powerhouse Soviet national teams. A forward (usually the left wing) drops back in line with the two defensemen while the other forwards remain high in the defensive zone. The emphasis is on disrupting an opponent’s attack, which ideally creates chances on the counter attack. Since it’s a simple system, it’s fairly easy to implement.
Although it’s admittedly a gamble to change horses at the quarter pole, the Pens have morphed into a one-trick pony, and a broken-down one at that. The coaching staff needs to take the heat off the beleaguered defense—not to mention goalie Marc-Andre Fleury—who’s been hung out to dry more often than a set of linens on wash day.
It’s not as if the Pens don’t have the personnel to adopt a more defensive posture. Craig Adams, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, and Jordan Staal—to name a few—have filled checking roles. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Brooks Orpik cut their NHL-teeth playing a left wing lock under Michel Therrien.
Defensive hockey has its rewards, too. Just ask the New York Rangers, who employed the left wing lock to sweep six games with these very same Flyers during the regular season.
Whether Bylsma will consider making such a drastic change is another matter. He seems stubbornly insistent on sticking with his pedal-to-the-metal approach. Indeed, during a recent practice session he repeatedly reinforced the importance of moving forward all the time.
Sometimes, however, the best defense isn’t a good offense. The Pens have proven that during the two gut-wrenching losses to Philly. It’s time to bite the proverbial bullet and make sound defensive play a priority. At this stage the Penguins have nothing to lose and a Stanley Cup to gain.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.