The Penguins defensemen did not have one of their better games this season in Pittsburgh's 4-3 OT loss to the Capitals last night. Olli Maatta continued to look immobile on the ice and clearly is still struggling with an injury that limits his effectiveness. Trevor Daley and Brian Dumoulin had a rough game as well and found themselves split up before the end of the night. Kris Letang was his normal superhuman self, logging 34:02 in the contest, but Ben Lovejoy managed only 14:48 in a game that lasted nearly 70 minutes despite the struggles of the defensemen around him. Credit has to go the Washington players who were able to maintain zone time for large stretches of the game and put the Pens' blue liners in a position to look bad, but the team needs more out of their defense.
The current lineup has resulted from Maatta's return from injury and Sullivan's desire to play a more conservative, defensively oriented game at the start of the Rangers series with Jeff Zatkoff in goal. It's time to change gears on the blue line and return to a lineup that better reflects Pittsburgh's aggressive, attacking style. Regardless of how the Pens fill out the bottom of their lineup on defense, they're not going to be able to defend well enough in their own end to keep the Caps off the scoreboard if they spend too much time there. They need to ice a lineup that is going to keep the puck pinned in the offensive zone as much as possible.
As commendable that it is that Olli Maatta is able to battle through his injury, it doesn't do the team much good if he's a liability in his own zone by allowing prime scoring chances to materialize because he can't move well enough to prevent them. The team can't cut his ice time much further as it is as he's already 4th on the defense with an average TOI of 18:42, but at the very least they need to remove him as Kris Letang's designated partner and play him in a more sheltered role. Trevor Daley began to develop good chemistry with Letang while Maatta was injured; Mike Sullivan should go back to what was working.
And what was working was having players in the lineup who were able to help drive play away from the Pittsburgh goal. Nothing from the regular season suggested that Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy would form an effective pairing, and there's no reason to continue play them together other than a desire to simultaneously limit both of their ice time, because they've been bad in the postseason. Perhaps the only defenseman with whom Lovejoy was able to have any success this year was Brian Dumoulin - the pair had a 53.2 CF% while together as opposed to Lovejoy's 47.7 CF% with the rest of his defensive partners. If Lovejoy is going to maintain his spot in the lineup, it'd certainly make sense to play him with the one player who can actually allow the pairing to be competent.
On the flip side, Ian Cole has easily looked his best this season when paired with Justin Schultz. It doesn't matter if it's Schultz, Cole, Lovejoy, or Pouliot on the ice if they're getting pinned in by one of the Capitals top two lines - it's going to be a defensive mismatch. What Schultz does bring to the table is a good offensive skill set that could help turn plays in Pittsburgh's favor and give them a better opportunity to cash in while the puck is in Washington's zone. And that doesn't even bring up Derrick Pouliot, a player who has been sheltered past any reasonable justification. In 22 games played this season, Pouliot has a score-adjusted 58.9 CF%. He's a guy that could come in and immediately help the Penguins start forcing play towards the other end of the ice, and his play in his own end certainly isn't going to be more detrimental than what Pittsburgh is currently icing.
There's a reason why the Pens went to their current pairings after icing a very different look as they won 14 of 16 games to end the regular season. It's important not to read too much into any one game, but when they watch the game tape on this one they should recognize issues that have been present since the Rangers series started. The mismatched lines lack chemistry and don't put the team's defense in the best position to succeed. If Sullivan was willing to try the current look because he believed it gave the team their best chance for success against the Rangers, he needs to remember that the Capitals are an entirely different team. The team's forwards showed in Game 1 that they were a deeper unit than Washington's group and can be the difference in the series if put in the position to do so - the Pens need to make sure they're playing an optimal blue line that best allows that to happen.