Capitals will provide stern test for Penguins defense in Thursday’s season opener

October 6, 2018

The Penguins’ Kris Letang takes a shot during the first day of camp Friday, Sept. 14, 2018 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

Shortly after raising their 2018 Stanley Cup championship banner Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals unleashed an offensive barrage on the Boston Bruins, not stopping until they’d hung a seven on the scoreboard.

Those same Capitals will be visiting PPG Paints Arena on Thursday night, which shines a spotlight on the one big-picture objective the Pittsburgh Penguins really need to reach to become a more formidable championship contender this season.

They’ve got to cut down on their goals against.

Scoring goals shouldn’t a problem for this talented Penguins roster. The team was third in the league with 3.29 goals per game last season. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel all finished in the top 10 in the league in scoring.

Defensively, it was a different story. The Penguins finished with the 12th-most goals against (3.02 per game), the 10th-most even-strength goals against (2.34), the 15th-worst penalty kill (80.0 percent) and the ninth-worst team save percentage (.903).

It might be easy to pin those problems on the team’s goalies and defensemen, but look at those stats again. They cover a wide cross-section of the game. A six-man effort will be required to make much-needed improvements.

“It comes down to just the little things,” goalie Matt Murray said. “You can cut down goals against in a lot of different ways. You can have the puck more. You can block more shots. You can make more saves. A lot of that’s on me, for sure. There’s a lot to it. Obviously we have the talent in here to score goals. I don’t think that’ll be a problem. But obviously we need to keep more out of our net.”

There’s little chance the Penguins will try to fix their defensive issues by gritting their teeth and muscling up. No one on the roster finished in the top 30 in the league in hits or the top 40 in the league in blocked shots last season. Even with the offseason addition of Jack Johnson and Juuso Riikola, two defenders who can play with physicality, that’s not their game.

They’re more likely to try to thwart opponents by preventing them from setting up in the offensive zone in the first place.

“We’re trying to tighten up our defensive coverage, especially coming through the neutral zone,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “We see areas where we can improve. We’re going to try to do that. That’s definitely an area we can improve upon.”

Frankly, the Penguins are most likely to try to give up fewer goals by possessing the puck more and spending more time at the other end of the ice. After all, that’s how the roster is built. It’s embedded in the franchise’s DNA.

The Penguins finished fifth in the league with a 52.3 five-on-five shot attempt percentage last season. That’s good, but it could always be better.

“The goal is always to allow less goals and score more,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “I think we have to be a team that is hard to play against because of our speed and our intensity. We want to improve those areas of the game.”

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