Chipped Ice A.M.: Penguins could turn to Sid and the Kids for Game 5 spark
Coach Mike Sullivan routinely shuffled his line combinations – from shift to shift, let alone game to game – as the Penguins went on an 0-2 road trip to Nashville in the middle of the Stanley Cup Final.
Wingers ranging from Bryan Rust to Chris Kunitz to Phil Kessel took their turns playing at least a few even-strength shifts on the top line with Sidney Crosby over the past two games.
Now, though, the series has tightened up heading into Game 5 Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena. For the Penguins, it's not a must-win game in the truest sense of the term, but it's close. If they lose, they'll be down 3-2 in the series and will need to win in the hornets' nest that is Bridgestone Arena just to keep their season alive.
With the stakes getting higher, the time for experimentation on the top line just might be over.
At practice Wednesday in Cranberry, Sullivan reunited the trio of Jake Guentzel, Crosby and Conor Sheary – a line that has become known as Sid and the Kids.
If the combination holds up once Game 5 starts, Sullivan is sending a clear message: The Penguins aren't going down without giving their most successful line combination of the season a chance to bring home a championship.
"I do have a comfort level with (Crosby)," said Sheary, who played most of Game 4 on the third line. "Nothing's really set in stone until game time, but if I do get that opportunity, I think I need to focus on bringing what I can and trying to help make that line better as much as I can by using my speed."
Sid and the Kids were first put together in the middle of a comeback victory over Buffalo on March 5. Over the next eight games, they combined for 11 goals and 33 points.
The line wasn't perfect, of course. When it was on the ice at even strength, the Penguins tended to give up more scoring chances than they normally do. But it was the most dynamic combination Sullivan found all year, and given where the Penguins are in the series with Nashville, an offensive spark is needed, even if it comes at the expense of airtight defense.
After scoring nine times in the first two games of the series, the Penguins managed just one goal in each of the two games played in Nashville.
"We were very opportunistic in the first two games and took advantage of some breakdowns in their coverage and were able to score," Sheary said. "The last couple of games, we've been getting more chances. They're not going in for us or (goalie Pekka) Rinne's making a big save. I think we just have to bear down a little bit on our Grade A chances and hopefully put a few more in."
Besides, the way Crosby sees it, the defensive end of the ice will take care of itself if he and the kids spend enough time buzzing around Rinne's cage.
"Try to get some more zone time. That's probably the best thing," Crosby said. "If we can hold onto the puck and create some offensive-zone time and force them to play defense, I think that's probably the best way to handle it."
Crosby is coming off a strong performance in Game 4. He scored his team's only goal on a first-period breakaway and set up a handful of other near misses.
For Sheary and Guentzel, the reunion might be able to provide a spark.
Sheary snapped a 17-game goal drought when he scored in Game 1 against the Predators, but he hasn't scored in the four games since.
"Just because you're playing with Sid, you're going to get a little more ice time and more chances in the offensive zone," Sheary said. "Whatever line I'm on, I'm going to bring the same energy, the same work ethic and the same compete. I'm going to try to do that as best I can."
Guentzel has been the team's most dependable goal scorer against the Predators, scoring in each of the first three games of the series, but Game 4 was his most frustrating outing in quite some time.
He had at least two and probably more high-end scoring chances go by the wayside.
"You miss those and it's a whole different game," Guentzel said. "Obviously it hurts a little bit. You've got to put it behind you and move on."
THE SERIES: Tied 2-2
LAST GAME: Frederick Gaudreau and Viktor Arvidsson scored second-period goals to turn a 1-1 tie into a 4-1 Nashville victory in Game 4 Monday night.
NEXT GAME: The Penguins will look to secure their team-record 10th home victory of the postseason when they host the Predators in Game 5 at 8 p.m. Thursday.
A NOTE: In NHL history, when a playoff series is tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 has won the series 200 of 254 times. This season, Game 5 winners are 7-0.
A QUOTE: "I think at this point in the series, both teams are pretty desperate. We understand where we're at and the situation." – Sidney Crosby
A NUMBER: 5 – consecutive home victories for the Penguins. They've outscored their opposition 20-6 during the streak.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.