Ron Hainsey avoiding a big hit and carrying the puck from end to end isn’t what the Pittsburgh Penguins ask of him or any other defenseman not named Kris Letang.
Out long term after neck surgery, Letang isn’t a part of this run, but a key adjustment by Hainsey and the other defensemen in the Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators is a major reason why Pittsburgh is one victory away from a second consecutive championship.
For the first four games of the series — even the two they won — the Penguins struggled to hold onto the puck and drive play, something that changed in a 6-0 blowout in Game 5.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel played a role in finishing, but it all started from the back end with a style of play that emulates Letang.
“One thing we got going early on was we kind of broke the puck out as a group together,” Hainsey said. “We had good communication in our zone working the puck out quick and with speed.
“If we can get our forwards the puck early in shifts when they got a lot of energy and before they have to stop and play defense, they’re some of the best forwards in the world. They can make some stuff happen out there.”
When the Penguins talk about “playing fast,” this is what they mean. It’s not about blazing speed, though they have some of that, but about moving the puck quickly and forcing even the stingiest of defensive opponents to get back on their heels.
The Penguins’ unheralded defense of Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Hainsey lacks the No. 1 anchor present on every Cup winner over the past decade.
Coach Mike Sullivan pointed to Pittsburgh’s transition game and up-ice speed as an area that could improve in the series.
Tweaks made by Sullivan and assistant coach Jacques Martin got the best out of that blue line Thursday with two goals and three assists.
“I thought (Game 5) might have been their best night as a group of six,” Sullivan said on a conference call Friday. “They doing all the little things, I think, that don’t necessarily show up on the score sheet, or you can’t necessarily quantify in a statistic, but those little things add up to helping a team win games.”
Breaking the puck out of the defensive zone is what Sullivan wants from his defensemen, along with blocking shots and defending. Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and those other skilled forwards can’t do anything without the puck.
So the goal was simple: Get it to them quickly.
“We just played simple, moved the puck up quick and our forwards did a good job of using their speed and playing down low, hanging on to pucks,” Schultz said. We were “just trying to move it up to our forwards and play the way we’ve been playing all year.”
It’s not the way the Penguins were playing in the first four games of the series as Nashville negated their speed and controlled the neutral zone. That’s a big reason why the Predators had 123 shots to the Penguins’ 91.
It was all even in Game 5, which didn’t go unnoticed to Peter Laviolette as far as differences in play.
“Speed would be one of it,” Laviolette said. “They were quicker. We’ll look to make those adjustments (in practice). But we’ve got to play a better game.”
The Penguins played almost the perfect tactical game to take a 3-2 lead in the series, which is why Hainsey said they’d be in good shape if they could replicate that performance in Game 6 Sunday in Nashville. That’ll take another team effort from the defense.
“We know we’re no Kris Letangs back here,” Schultz said. “We’re just trying to each step up a little bit and it’s been working so far. We’ve got to get one more win.”
Stanley Cup Finals
Nashville vs. Pittsburgh
Penguins lead, 3-2
■ Game 1: Pittsburgh 5-3
■ Game 2: Pittsburgh 4-1
■ Game 3: Nashville 5-1
■ Game 4: Nashville 4-1
■ Game 5: Pittsburgh 6-0
■ Sunday: at Nashville, 8
■ x-Wednesday: at Pittsburgh, 8
All games on NBC and CBC
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