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Penguins relying on familiar formula of strong offense, middling defense

Updated 12 hours ago

Editor’s note: As the Penguins hit their bye week, beat writer Jonathan Bombulie looks at four characteristics usually shared by Stanley Cup champions and where this year’s Penguins stack up in those areas.

Whether it’s in the form of a goaltender playing at the top of his game or the skaters in front of him sacrificing their physical well-being to keep pucks out of the net, diligent defensive effort is the hallmark of successful playoff hockey.

The last three times the Stanley Cup has been awarded, however, it has been passed by commissioner Gary Bettman to Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, two of the greatest offensive players in the history of the game who serve as captain of a couple of high-octane teams.

So which is more important? In order to win a championship, does an NHL team need to be a great offensively or defensively?

The data over the last decade shows either approach can work just fine, which is why goal differential — not necessarily goals for or goals against — is a statistical category in which most Stanley Cup champions shine.

Seven of the last 10 Stanley Cup champs have finished the regular season in the top 10 in the league in goals against, but the exceptions are glaring, and they are very recent. Last season, the Capitals ranked 16th on defense. The year before that, the Penguins ranked 14th. Those middle-of-the road defenses were good enough to take a title.

Seven of the last 10 Stanley Cup champs also have finished the regular season in the top 10 in the league in goals for, but, again, the exceptions stick out like sore thumbs. When the Los Angeles Kings won in 2012 and ‘14, they weren’t just average offensive clubs. They were demonstrably bad, finishing in the bottom five in the league in scoring. That didn’t stop them once the playoffs started.

Nine of the last 10 Stanley Cup championships, however, have finished in the top 10 in goal differential, with the only exception being last year’s Capitals, who were close.

In other words, it doesn’t matter if a team specializes in offense or defense, as long as it is outstanding at one or the other.

As they hit their bye week 48 games into the season, the Penguins are outstanding on offense, ranking fourth at 3.50 goals per game. They’re middling on defense, ranking 17th at 3.00 goals per game. That’s a formula similar to the one the Penguins used to win championships in 2009 and ‘17, not to mention 1991 and ‘92.

It is not, however, a formula they are particularly comfortable with.

“In the short term, you can be,” winger Bryan Rust said. “I think over the long run, those goals can wear out, and the offense can wear out. I think you’ve got to have something to fall back on when things aren’t going your way offensively.”

Rust knows more about the fickle nature of goal scoring than most. In the first 30 games of this season, he scored on 2.4 percent of the shots he took. Since then, his shooting percentage is 18.9.

Rust said the Penguins want to better their goals-against numbers in the second half of the season because good defense is a more repeatable skill than good offense.

“You can get as many chances as you want. There are going to be times where nothing’s going to go in,” Rust said. “I know that first hand, given how this season has gone. Things can go from one extreme to the other. You can play strong defensively all the time. It’s just work ethic and details. Offensively, you might need a few bounces and a little bit of luck.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at or
via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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