Time for a Change? by @BrianK_PI - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Time for a Change? by @BrianK_PI

The Pittsburgh Penguins looked flat against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. They were plagued by bad turnovers, losing track of their man in the defensive end, and just an overall sloppiness to their play. Maybe it wasn't as much of a surprise that the Lightning were able to come out looking fresher after a longer layoff against weaker competition, but the Penguins brought something with them from their 4-2 series win over the Washington Capitals - a lack of offensive production from the top 6.

The setup of the Pittsburgh lines has been based on keeping the dominant Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel line in tact. It's a tough decision to break up that line, but it might also be the right decision if those wingers can help spark a top 6 that isn't working as currently constructed. Conor Sheary is finding that stick-handling through and around defenders is becoming more difficult as the postseason progresses, while Chris Kunitz and Eric Fehr haven't been able to keep up with Evgeni Malkin as their center. Malkin was able to register 17 shot attempts in Game 1, but often he found little support from his linemates at even strength.

It'd be difficult to break up the HBK line, but Mike Sullivan is showing that he's willing to at least consider making the tough choices. At practice earlier today, Sullivan relegated Olli Maatta to the 4th pairing with Derrick Pouliot, elevating Justin Schultz to take his place among the top 6 defensemen. While it remains to be seen that this roster decision is reflected in the Game 2 lineup, it's a necessary lineup change given that Maatta is clearly dealing with an injury that is hampering his skating, and against a team with as much speed as the Lightning that's not something that will work in Pittsburgh's favor. The opening goal by Alex Killorn exposed a defender who's mind and body weren't on the same page, and it was an easy breakaway resulting from a pass from the goal line to the far blue line. If Sullivan decided to take a further look at his forward lines to ice the strongest lineup from 1st to 4th line, not just the strongest line, he might come up with a top 9 that looked something like this:

Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Phil Kessel

The notion of a "failed experiment" playing Phil Kessel with Sidney Crosby is a narrative that took legs early in the season and never readjusted itself based on how the year played out. Crosby and Kessel were on the ice together for 192:19 - just 15.9% of Crosby's even strength ice time and 17.0% of Kessel's. Further, 122:20 of their time together came under Mike Johnston - the same head coach now widely regarded as being the root cause of Crosby's offensive struggles. They haven't had a chance to show what they can do together with a game plan that actually plays to their strengths, and Phil Kessel is on fire now, leading the team with 13 points (5g, 8a). Crosby and Kessel both think the game well to go along with world class talent - there's no reason to think they can't play together effectively.

Carl Hagelin-Evgeni Malkin-Patric Hornqvist

Carl Hagelin adds an element of speed to Evgeni Malkin's line that just isn't there right now with Chris Kunitz and Eric Fehr, and even with Tampa Bay's team speed it'll help stretch the defense and give Malkin more room to operate. Patric Hornqvist gives him a more effective finisher around the crease, and someone who can create traffic in front and occupy defenders. This is a line that functions with Malkin being the primary trigger-man, and he's had some of his best offensive success come when he's the one putting the puck on net.

Conor Sheary-Nick Bonino-Eric Fehr

While this isn't as talented of a line as the HBK line, this is still an above average 3rd line in the NHL. Each player can help maintain possession and pitch in with some offense. It'd be great to have a dominating 3rd line, but one that is able to drive play and chip in with some scoring is checking a lot of boxes for what is needed. Also, this allows Sullivan to get his best players on the ice more frequently, as he has been rolling lines throughout the playoffs, and the differentiation between 1st line and 4th line time on ice at even strength has been slight.

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