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Penguins OK with giving up shots … but only to a point

Jonathan Bombulie
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Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray (30) stops a shot by Carolina Hurricanes’ Warren Foegele (13) with Juuso Riikola (50) and Kris Letang (58) helping out on defense during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. The Hurricanes won 4-0.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have given up a total of 90 shots on goal in their previous two games.

When coach Mike Sullivan sees that number, he winces.

When defensemen Kris Letang and Jack Johnson see it, they shrug.

On balance, with 25 games left in the regular season, the Penguins still are grappling with the issue of shot suppression and what role it needs to play in their winning recipe going forward.

Frankly, there are cases to be made on both sides.

Start with Letang and Johnson’s contention that shots-against totals don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things.

While the Penguins were being outshot 51-28 by Philadelphia on Monday, they amassed a 24-20 advantage in scoring chances and won the game 4-1. While they were being outshot 39-34 by Edmonton on Wednesday, they piled up a 19-11 edge in high-danger scoring chances and came away with a 3-1 victory.

Those results advance a theory the Washington Capitals rode to the Stanley Cup last season: Quality of chances is more important than quantity of shots.

“We don’t want to turn down chances to shoot, but if our quality of chances are higher and more than other teams, I like our chances, especially with the guys we have in this room up front,” Johnson said.

The 90 shots goalie Matt Murray faced against the Flyers and Oilers came at him from an average distance of 39.4 feet. Compare that to the opposing shot distance of 34.4 feet Murray faced at the start of the season before missing a month with a lower-body injury.

If the Penguins are giving up more shots, but they’re coming from 5 feet farther away, the team probably is playing better defense, not worse.

“When you give up those type of shots, we know Matt’s going to save them, so we have to take care of the sticks in front,” Letang said. “That shot clock, it doesn’t mean anything. Obviously you want to be the one leading in shots. It’s a good sign. But if the other team has more shots, it’s not the end of the world.”

Sullivan appreciates the point of view of his defensemen. He lauded the entire team for its defensive efforts in the wins over the Flyers and Oilers.

“I think our players have done a real good job defending and keeping a fair amount of shots to the perimeter,” he said. “That’s part of sound, fundamental defense.”

Ultimately, though, he considers the shot totals a red flag.

Sullivan said his team needs to pursue the puck more tenaciously on the forecheck and do a better job of denying clean zone entries to keep the numbers down.

“We’re defending hard, but we’re defending too much,” Sullivan said. “We need to have the puck more. We need to control territory.”

Moving forward, the Penguins probably aren’t going to become the 2010 Canadiens, who collapsed religiously around goalie Jaroslav Halak and dared opponents to shoot through a six-man maze of bodies.

But they also probably won’t be the 2016 Penguins, who tilted the ice with a dominant possession game as they blazed through the Stanley Cup playoff field.

They probably are going to give up a few more shots than average, taking as much care as they can to keep shooters away from the most dangerous areas of the ice.

“Come this time of year, games get a little bit harder, and that valuable ice is harder to find,” winger Bryan Rust said. “That slot is that much more valuable. Whether we’re trying to get in there in the O-zone, or we’re trying to defend it in the D-zone, it definitely gets a little bit tighter.”

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