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Unsung heroes on blue line keeping Cup defense a reality

Unless they score a goal, most won’t say much about them.

There’s no primetime, household name here.  No award winners, headline grabbers or prima donnas.

These guys are the unsung bunch: the defensive core of the Pittsburgh Penguins that bent but never broke.  A group that blocked the shots, made the hits and gathered the takeaways, piecing it all together to serve as the paramount cog in bringing this team just one game away from another trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Playing more minutes-per-defenseman than any other team in the postseason, the Penguins have put their faith in 20+ minute guys like Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, and Ron Hainsey—who played a team-high 21:53 in Sunday’s 7-0 Game five thrashing of Ottawa—only to reap the rewards of rock solid, consistent defense for much of the road to defending Lord Stanley.

“We’re not tired when we go back out there,” Hainsey said after the Pens’ 1-0 Game two win.  “We just have to stick with what we’ve been doing.  We have to be consistent, and I think we have been doing a good job of it so far.  We have a solid group of guys that communicate well and understand the group goal.”

That solid group has been a transient one on the blue line this postseason thanks to the injury bug, which has bitten its fair share over the last month.

From Kris Letang’s neck injury to Justin Schultz’s Game two setback to Chad Ruhwedel, who was injured in Game four, the defensive unit of the Penguins has lost more cast members than an episode of The Walking Dead; yet it is the stoic efforts of those remaining that have gotten the job done, keeping the likes of Columbus, Washington and now Ottawa at bay.

“I think our strength is our depth,” said Maatta after Game two.  “(Injuries) happen. It’s part of hockey. It’s obviously unfortunate. Again, he did a great job. There’s always the next guy who’s going to step up. Everybody has to play a little more minutes. I don’t think it really matters. We have so many good players in here.

Led by Ian Cole, who has blocked a team-best 46 shots so far in the playoffs, the art of the blocked shot has played a catalyst role for the defensive unit and its success when backed up in their zone.  As a team, the Penguins have led the postseason with 315 total blocked shots.

That heroic, ultimate use of the body as a shield for the team has trickled down to the two-way players.

During the waning seconds of Pittsburgh’s 3-2 Game four win in Ottawa. center Nick Bonino blocked two point-blank shots during a 6-on-4 rush to keep the win in check.  Earlier in the game, a sliding Scott Wilson took a puck to the chest, stopping another Senators’ shot attempt.

“Defense is a team effort and everybody on this team understands the importance,” said Cole during the Washington series.  “There is a sense of desperation in everything that we do.  When you see the goalie down and out, a play on the wall that needs to be made, whatever the play may be, you want to do what’s best for the team no matter the cost.  That’s the mentality that we’ve had going into it and it has been successful for us.”

Chipping away in the defensive zone hasn’t been the only place the blue line has made its name this postseason.

Maatta, who scored his first goal of the playoffs, a pivotal net finder in Game four, followed the great offensive timing up with another twine-tickler Sunday, opening the scoring for the Pens on a blast from near the blue line at the 8:14 mark.

Trevor Daley closed the scoring Sunday, collecting his first goal of the playoffs, leaving just Cole and Mark Streit as the only defensemen not to score this postseason.

“On defense, from our estimation, it’s not just about playing in your end zone,” said Coach Mike Sullivan.  “It takes place 180 feet from your net if we’re playing the game the right way, and I think that’s, when you look at the type of team that we have and how we’re built, I think that’s when this team is at its very best.”

Sullivan talked about the important role the defensive unit played in Game four.

“I think it’s hard to generate offense in today’s game in the absence of your defensemen getting involved, whether it be off the rush or in the offensive zone itself,” Coach explained.  “I thought our defensemen did as good a job as we’ve been in this playoffs (Friday) along that offensive blue line, just becoming an option, making good decisions with the puck, helping us to sustain the offensive attack, and that’s going to be an important component of our game moving forward.”

Whatever facet you look at, Pittsburgh’s defense, for the most part, has gone above and beyond to answer the call in the 2017 playoffs.  And when you talk accolades and recognition, well…a win in the books is reward enough for this crew of humble roughnecks.

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