Post-Gazette sports reporter Paul Zeise blogs about the world of sports, and Pittsburgh sports in particular, with an assist from Seth Rorabaugh and his Morning Links. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulZeise and Seth @emptynetters.
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During Tuesday's 2-0 win against the Rangers, the Penguins blue line was lauded for a complete concentrated effort against the best team in the Eastern Conference. Defensemen like Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin had strong games against the Ranger's top forwards.
Lost in the attention showed on the defensemen and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's shutout was the defensive effort by the forwards, particularly prospect Eric Tangradi.
In the waning seconds of the second period, with the Rangers controlling the puck in the offensive zone, New York forward Carl Hagelin had a chance in the slot. Before he could shoot, Tangradi stripped the puck off his stick and prevented a shot.
Just past the midway point of the third period, Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto attempted a slap shot from the left point. Tangradi challenged and blocked. That resulted in an offensive chance between forwards Craig Adams and Richard Park.
Such plays haven't always been in Tangradi's repertoire. For Tangradi, defense and skating, particularly on the backcheck, were inconsistent, at best. But as head coach Dan Byslma said yesterday, that part of Tangradi's game "is significantly higher than it was two years ago."
Yesterday, Tangradi talked about those two specific plays in the Rangers game and the growth of his defensive game.
What happened on the strip against Hagelin?
"I feel like I need to be active on the puck and hunt the puck and always be around the puck. It's just one of those plays that I tried to use my skating and tried to catch another guy with speed and tried to finish him. Defense is something I've learned is pretty important around here."
You made the block on Del Zotto and immediately skated up ice to potentially create a screen. How did you identify that situation in transition?
"I knew I had to get out there and get in a lane for my position. Fortunately I was in a lane pretty well and was able to get the block. And when we have numbers up the ice, I know that me being a big body, that I need to push the defense back and create some space and drive to the middle of the ice. A lot of time, the guy who drives to the middle of the ice might not get the assist or the goal, but I was able to open up some space for 'Adsy' and 'Parksy' to make the play."
How much have you focused on defense this season?
"A ton. I think that might be one of the aspects of my game that's come the farthest. The wall play in the defensive zone and not turning pucks over in the neutral zone has been a huge aspect of my game that I wanted to address and something that helps keep you in Pittsburgh if you're able to do those things consistently. Obviously I haven't scored like I had hoped. I've gotten chance but if you're not a liability defensively, I believe you'll be able to earn another shift."
Have the coaches or management specifically told you to focus on defense?
"We haven't sat down and said 'This is what you need to do.' But I think that's an aspect that can always get better. No one is ever going to be perfect in the defensive zone."
Is it just a matter of being a better skater or are there other aspects to playing improved defense?
"I think its everything. Skating, physicality, being smart with the puck. I just think the way they do things here, we take a lot of luck out of the game. If you're going to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins for 60 minutes, you're going to have to work for all 60. That means not turning pucks over at the blue (line). Not giving the other team chances. Making them earn it. "
What's different about playing defense for a bigger body (6-foot-4, 221 pounds) like yourself compared to a smaller skater like Pascal Dupuis (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) or Matt Cooke (5-foot-11, 205 pounds)?
"I'm not sure if there's too much of a different role. Just being big along walls, I think I almost have an advantage in the defensive zone along the walls. But what those guys have is experience. And once you gain more experience, you start to learn the different angles of the ice and how certain guys do certain things."
(Photos: First-Justin K. Aller/Getty Images; Second-Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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