Sometimes, the best defense is a good offense

Last updated: January 25. 2014 10:48PM - 1017 Views
By - tvenesky@timesleader.com

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Defense stepping up

Heading into Friday’s game, five of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s top 10 active leading scorers were defensemen, led by Brendan Mikkelson who is fourth with 22 points. At the end of last season, only two Penguin defensemen finished in the top 10 in team scoring.

Head coach John Hynes wasn’t surprised at his blueliners’ offensive prowess.

“With the particular group we have, they do a nice job on the blueline with getting shots through,” he said. “Participating in offense is something we stress.”

Philip Samuelsson ranks fifth among the team’s active scorers with 17 points and said while the team’s blueliners take pride in playing a defense-first style, a little bit of offense doesn’t hurt.

“Anytime your defensemen can score it certainly helps out,” he said. “It’s good to have that balanced attack out there and when we’re getting shots from the blueline it makes us a more dangerous team.”

Philip Samuelsson’s response when he was asked about having a career year was music to a coach’s ears.

“I’ve come a long way, but there’s still some areas I can improve on,” Samuelsson said.

Having a player who has already posted career highs in goals, assists and points at the halfway point of the season — one who still want to improve even more — is exactly the mindset that head coach John Hynes loves.

After 38 games, Samuelsson has three goals, 14 assists and 17 points heading into this weekend’s trio of road games. He’s also second on the team with a plus-14.

Last season, Samuelsson totaled two goals and 10 points in 65 games, and in his rookie season the year before, he tallied a goal and nine points in 46 games.

“He’s come a long way,” Hynes said, noting that Samuelsson’s offensive success this season is making him a more well-rounded player. “His calling card is his ability to play defense, shut other teams down, move the puck and be excellent on the penalty kill. It’s not just his offensive side that’s important, it’s the fact that he’s continuing to develop into a complete player.”

That development was sparked after Samuelsson returned from a five-game stint with Pittsburgh on Dec. 24. Since then, Samuelsson has scored all three of his goals and posted 11 of his 17 points, all in 12 games.

In the last six games alone before this weekend, the third-year pro has totaled three goals and nine points with a plus-11 rating.

While Samuelsson said his time with Pittsburgh — the first NHL stint of his career — was a help, the parent club didn’t ask him to come back to Wilkes-Barre and focus on his offense.

“I took that upon myself,” he said. “Being up there, I saw it was something I could improve on. After being with Pittsburgh, I feel like I’m seeing the ice better and making quicker decisions. It’s nice to see that translating into my game here.”

While he’s never put up immense numbers at any stop in his career, the 2009 second round pick has shown glimpses of offensive flair. In 2008-09, Samuelsson’s only year at the junior level, he posted 22 assists in 54 games. The next two years with Boston College, Samuelsson registered 14 points in 42 games and 16 points in 39 games.

Still, nothing matches his current production.

“I never really scored this many points. You look at my production compared to previous seasons and I’ve already surpassed that,” Samuelsson said. “That’s not to say I’m a different defenseman — it’s still defense first. But when your confidence is high like mine is now, you’re more creative with the puck and willing to try more things that you normally wouldn’t.”

One of those new things is a willingness to shoot the puck more. In Samuelsson’s rookie season, he totalled 26 shots in 46 games. Last year, that figure rose to 53 shots in 65 games.

Heading into Friday, Samuelsson has 38 shots in 38 games.

Shooting more is another bonus of having confidence, he said.

“It’s just about moving the puck quicker and having the confidence in yourself to hold onto it when I do have the time,” Samuelsson said. “Playing on the right side, I get a lot of looks and I’m getting pucks down to the net. When you do that, you never know what will happen.”

Another reason for Samuelsson’s recent success centers around being re-united with defense partner Simon Despres, who was sent down by Pittsburgh last week. Despres had three goals in his first three games back last weekend and Samuelsson assisted on two of them.

Combined, the duo was a plus-12 last weekend, including Sunday’s 5-1 win over Providence in which Samuelsson and Despres each finished with a plus-4 rating.

“I’m comfortable playing with Samuelsson. We’re good at making little plays to break pressure and making the good first pass,” Despres said. “We have good chemistry out there.”

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