Sidney Crosby: Penguins can’t wait too long for defense to catch up to offense
There’s a theory in hockey that says offense is ahead of defense at this time of year.
Players have been practicing their puck-handling and shooting skills all summer long. They haven’t been working on backchecking or systems play.
For the first few weeks of the season, then, they might be rusty. It’s not uncommon to see results like the Penguins’ 7-6 overtime win over Washington on opening night or a pair of 13-goal games that were played in the league Sunday.
Sidney Crosby believes in that theory.
“I just think it takes a little bit more time to get used to playing without the puck and those little details becoming habits,” Crosby said. “It’s hard to have those right away.”
He does not believe, however, that the Penguins can wait a few months to let their defense catch up to their offense. That’s what they did last year, and while it didn’t hurt them much in the long run – they finished in second place in the Metropolitan Division – it made for some dicey moments in the middle of the season.
Their play away from the puck has to improve quicker than that this year, Crosby said. In fact, now would be a good time.
“We can’t wait until January to be consistent with that,” Crosby said. “I don’t think we were happy with that, even in the first game. We still made some mistakes. We can’t give up five and six goals a game and expect to have a lot of wins that way. We have a good few days here to make sure we focus on it again.
“I think that’s an area where everybody’s kind of in the same boat, when you’re trying to get those habits dialed in, but we’ve got to find a way to do that quick.”
While coach Mike Sullivan plans to spend all week giving his team’s defensive game a serious once-over, he said he also sees some validity in the theory that offense is ahead of defense at this time of year.
“It can be,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to instill the habits and the structure that’s necessary for cooperative effort when you’re playing away from the puck and you’re playing defensively. Sometimes that can take a little bit of time.”
The headline from Monday’s personnel groupings at practice was the possibility that Juuso Riikola could replace Olli Maatta in the lineup. A change could also be in store for Justin Schultz.
Schultz spent much of the preseason on a defense pair with newcomer Jack Johnson before playing alongside Maatta for the first two games of the regular season. He was back with Johnson on Monday.
“(Johnson is) a solid two-way player,” Schultz said. “He obviously can jump up in the play and create offense. Really good away from the puck too. I like playing with each and every one of these guys. It’s just a matter of finding the right chemistry.”
If Monday’s defense pairs hold up and Riikola does make his NHL debut Thursday night, he gives a hearty endorsement to his likely defense partner, Jamie Oleksiak.
“He’s a big guy, good at defending,” Riikola said. “He’s played a lot. He can help me and talk to me on the ice. He can be a support for me. Today was so good. I liked it.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.