Without a winger for Malkin, there can be no 'Nightmare' for Penguins
This has been a nightmarish January for Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, neither of whom will play tonight at New Jersey because of injuries. Not difficult to imagine is Crosby's concussion and Malkin's battered left knee keeping them out through the All-Star break next weekend.
The Penguins are contending for the East's top seed despite having played just twice this season with Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal — the "Big Three" centers — in the lineup.
Once that lineup becomes a regularity, the Penguins must use the remaining regular-season days to establish how Malkin and Staal will figure into the Stanley Cup playoff mix.
Those two superstars must find firmly established roles. Otherwise, not a dominant Crosby or a deep defense corps or consistent goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury will lead to 16 postseason wins.
Bylsma didn't deny Tuesday night that he is thinking about keeping Staal as the center on a line with left wing Matt Cooke and right wing Tyler Kennedy. Those three, tagged previously as the "Nightmare Line," clearly have developed a unique chemistry by playing mostly together since Bylsma was hired almost two years ago.
The Cooke-Staal-Kennedy trio is inarguably the Penguins' best at tilting the ice with offensive-zone puck possession. That is how Bylsma wants the Penguins to play.
As the playoffs progress, teams will rely more on three lines than four. The team with the best No. 3 line doesn't always win a best-of-seven series, but there is no arguing which third line was superior when the Penguins beat the Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.
Unfortunately, when it comes to their "Nightmare" option, the Penguins are hindered by a recurring bad dream.
They need a scoring-line winger for Malkin, as they did last season and for Crosby in seasons prior.
Without one going forward, the options for Malkin are to play with Crosby — an option Bylsma doesn't prefer — or play with Staal, thus breaking up the advantageous third line.
Either option places Malkin on the right wing, which isn't the best place for him.
That place would be at center on the second line, a spot where in back-to-back seasons he produced 100 points and was a runner-up for MVP.
Something he had for those seasons that he hasn't these past two: a consistently capable winger, either a crease crasher or a sniper.
Before the trade deadline in six weeks, the cap-strapped Penguins need to find one of those types of players for Malkin — not to appease him but to afford Bylsma an opportunity this spring to unleash the Penguins' "Nightmare" matchup of a third line in the playoffs.
That is the best way for a Cup dream to come true.
BY THE NUMBERS
The penalty-shot goal scored Tuesday night by winger Chris Conner was the Penguins' 22nd in their history and the first at Consol Energy Center. Some notable stats regarding the franchise's penalty-shot goals:
Make'em count: The Penguins are 14-7-1 when successful on a penalty shot.
Home cool: The Penguins have converted nine penalty shots on home ice. They are 9-0 in those games.
Conner's penalty-shot goal was the fourth winning score in team history. The others:
• Dave Hannan (Oct. 14, 1983; against the Capitals' Pat Riggin)
• Mario Lemieux (Jan. 19, 1988; against the Islanders' Kelly Hrudey)
• Martin Straka (Jan. 19, 2000; against the Blues' Roman Turek)
EYE ON THE ENEMY
An NHL Insider offers insight on the Penguins' opponents for the week ahead:
New Jersey Devils
Away, 7 p.m. today
"They've been more successful as of late and look to be settling into their new direction with (new coach Jacques) Lemaire. Getting a lead against this team is still important despite its poor record."
Home, 7 p.m. Saturday
"This is a difficult team to figure out. It has been up and down with big wins and big losses. When invested in the game early and successful offensively, the Hurricanes can turn a game into a track meet both ways."
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Home, 7 p.m. Tuesday
"Since Jan. 1, they have strung some wins together by playing with much more confidence. They approach games now with more belief in their ability to beat any team. As a young team, they are much tougher to beat if they get a lead."
Penguins center Mark Letestu shares his thoughts on contract extension:
First call made: "It was to my dad, just to let him know it was done. (The Penguins) and I had been talking for a couple of weeks, but it's still a big decision. Getting it done is just kind of a relief."
How to spend that cash: "My wife is expecting, so we'll try to save as much as we can to spend on that kid when it comes. That was the first thing I thought of about getting an extension done, 'Let's save some money and spend it on him... or her.'"
The rookie season: "It sure would have been nice to keep up the (goal) pace I started at. I'm comfortable right now. I could be up there more production-wise. But, hey, I'm still (in the NHL). That was something that was up for question in training camp. Every game that I'm still here makes it a good year for me."
ONES TO WATCH
Player to keep an eye on this week:
Mattias Tedenby, Devils RW: He is an average skater with above-average quickness, but he will generate plays for himself because of a high skill level. For a small guy, he is strong on the puck.
Erik Cole, Hurricanes LW: His speed and size is always a factor. He has looked like the courageous net-front player he was in the past.
John Tavares, Islanders center: He continues to move along at just around a point per game despite playing on an inconsistent team from the start of the season. His offensive-game composure allows him to be a double threat as a shooter and puck mover.