"Backs against the wall. That's what you've got to do."
One would think that statement, spoken soon after the Penguins' 4-1 flat-lined failure against the Jets on this Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena, would have come from someone on the home side. You know, the side that's missing Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Bryan Rust and now Patric Hornqvist. The side that's sorely lacking any semblance of a collective identity, both in roster composition and in performance.
Nope. Came from a Winnipeg executive. Clearly because someone on that side grasped the concept of adjusting to adversity.
"I thought everyone here did a great job," Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets' goaltender, would tell me afterward. "We knew what our situation was, we understood what we had to do, and we went out and took care of it."
The visitors had their own adversity, to put it mildly. Their defense, reduced to AHL rubble by injuries and by Dustin Byfuglien's lingering AWOL status, was comprised of six players who'd combined for 350 NHL games. Four of them hadn't played as many as 50. One was an 18-year-old draft pick from this summer.
So, after an erratic opening three games for the Jets, all on the road, Paul Maurice and his staff adjusted: They kept a third forward high almost at all times, kind of like a soccer midfielder dropped to the back line. And, as I'd confirm afterward with all concerned, that hadn't been the case until this night.
"Our forwards were really helping us a lot," Neal Pionk, one of those defensemen, would tell. "With a younger D-corps, I think that was huge. Especially against a team like Pittsburgh. We knew what we wanted to do."
That terminology again.
I checked with Maurice, too.
"Well, we'd want to have our forwards help out even if we had six Hall of Famers on the blue line, because it'd be the right thing to do," he began. "But certainly, with where we are back there and who we're facing ... we couldn't leave our defense alone. We just couldn't."
Which they didn't.
Which, by the way, shouldn't have presented a problem, in and of itself, for the Penguins. Because the game is then reduced to a simple, clear choice: Would they rather face the AHL defensemen of the Manitoba Moose or the highly skilled forwards of the Winnipeg Jets? Meaning would they rather assure possession in the attacking zone by chipping the puck past the Jets and turning those defensemen around, or would they rather turn it over repeatedly and absorb the risks?
Remarkably, they chose the latter. And I do mean chose:
What's above is Winnipeg's opening goal, the first in the NHL for the aforementioned 18-year-old, Ville Heinola. But I'm rewinding the sequence 20 ticks earlier to illustrate that, with the Jets' spectacular first line on the ice, the Penguins' fourth line forfeits an easy early chance to push the puck behind the AHL defense and deeper into the attacking zone.
First comes Teddy Blueger's timid outlet, followed by Zach Aston-Reese losing a 50/50 battle with the 18-year-old, followed by equally flaccid work along the boards before the goal.
That's garbage. But especially the first part. Can't happen.
Here's Brandon Tanev doing it, even though three Jets are waiting with the clothesline:
Here's Tanev again, this time trying to corral a Jack Johnson outlet rather than both of them simply working toward getting through yet another glaringly obvious clothesline:
Nothing was done with any focus, with any conviction in the neutral zone, not even by the most fired-up dude in Western Pennsylvania, Sam Lafferty:
Not to pick on the new kid. He fared just fine all-around. But the point's emphasized all the more that there was no evident broader plan to push the puck behind an AHL defense. Or worse, if there was such a plan, no one came close to adhering to it.
I'm not sure what to make of this. It's been three games out of 82 and, to repeat, there have been significant injuries already. But those injuries aren't to be shrugged off with a status-quo approach schematically. They mandate a more disciplined style, both with and without the puck. They deserve adjustments. They demand adjustments.
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