Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)
With Sidney Crosby returning to the lineup soon, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma will be faced with a unique but pleasant problem – where does Crosby fit in the lineup?
The answer should be an easy one, but the Penguins have two centers right now in Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin who have centered two of the most prolific lines in the NHL over the last 30 days. So there would be an understandable hesitation by Bylsma to tinker with the top two lines, especially the top line of Malkin, James Neal, and Chris Kunitz, who have played the bulk of the season together.
Crosby only had high praise for the Penguins top line when he spoke with the media last week.
"I think every shift they have created something", said Crosby of the Malkin line. "When you look at their line they really do have a perfect mix of guys there to create stuff every shift. They really carry the load. I think depth is a big part of our group but they’ve led the way with the way they’ve played."
Over the last 30 days, Neal, Malkin, and Kunitz have combined for 18 goals and 50 points. Though opposing teams seem to gameplan around stopping the trio, the planning is far easier than the execution.
"They’re a tough line to stop," Crosby added. "I really think that when they are going like that, it doesn’t matter who they are playing, they’re going to create stuff."
So that leaves the second line of center Jordan Staal and wingers Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis to be broken up. The trio has been prolific over the past month, but in the past two weeks especially, where they have combined for 18 points in six games. History suggests Staal would be moved back to the third line, with familiar linemates Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, where there would be a hope the rangy center could continue his dominant, point-per-game pace with slightly less skilled linemates. Even if Staal’s offensive output slightly declines, he will continue to get all of the minutes he can handle and will remain the top shutdown forward in the Penguins lineup, regardless of his linemates.
Crosby would meanwhile be reunited with Pascal Dupuis, a player who has spent much of his career flanking the Penguins captain since arriving in Pittsburgh four years ago. Sullivan would likely play on Crosby’s left side though it is possible Bylsma could simply blow things up, and shuffle all of the lines until everyone seems settled into a good combination. Regardless, the addition of Crosby, who has practiced with the team for several weeks now, should not upset any chemistry the team has developed over their current nine-game winning streak.
Quite the contrary, recent call-ups such as goalie Brad Thiessen, and defensemen Simon Despres and Brian Strait have fit in to the Penguins lineup fairly seamlessly, and in some cases contributed in clutch situations. So Crosby’s addition can only be positive. He managed 32 goals and 34 assists in 41 games last season, and 12 points in a brief eight-game appearance this season. The only real question is how long he will be able to remain healthy enough to play. If Crosby can put the concussion symptoms behind him for good, any concern will shift from how the Penguins will utilize him, to how the other 29 teams in the NHL will defend against him.
Atlantic Division Notes
New Jersey Devils – The Devils will wrap up a home-and-home series when they visit the Flyers tonight. The Devils have outscored the Flyers 10-5 in their last two meetings. Ilya Kovalchuk has been red-hot, managing five goals and four assists in his last four games.
New York Islanders – The Islanders will look to play the role of spoiler tonight when they host the Washington Capitals, who are clinging to the eighth and final playoff seed in the East. The Islanders yesterday assigned goalie Anders Nilsson to Bridgeport of the AHL. In two appearances over the last week, Nilsson allowed two goals and posted a shutout.
New York Rangers – Mats Zuccarello played in only his fourth game of the season last Sunday, playing 6:34 minutes on the powerplay, astounding considering he only managed 10:40 of total ice time in the game. The Rangers will host the Hurricanes tonight, in their fourth and final matchup of the season. The Blueshirts are 3-0 versus the Canes this season.
Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers will host the New Jersey Devils tonight for their sixth and final meeting of the season. Despite having the league’s best offense, the Flyers have struggled to consistently score goals recently, and were held to only 19 shots in last Sunday’s match against New Jersey.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Defensemen Simon Despres and Brian Strait were returned to the AHL as defensemen Paul Martin and Deryk Engelland appear to be recovered from their maladies. Engelland returned to the lineup Sunday, logging almost 20 minutes in the Penguins 5-2 victory.
Writer’s Note: It was confirmed this afternoon Sidney Crosby will play in Thursday’s match against the New York Rangers and will play on the third line between wingers Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Coach Bylsma also said Crosby would see shifts with other forwards, though his ice time would be limited to around 15 minutes.