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Penguins' depth allows for fine-tuned, strategic lineups in playoffs

| Thursday, May 16, 2013, 10:45 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Douglas Murray hits the Senators' Chris Neil during the second period Tuesday, May 14, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has been clear about refusing to discuss his lineup this postseason. Perhaps there is wisdom in this decision.

After all, the Penguins' lineup is almost never the same from one night to the next, which has become quite a weapon.

When general manager Ray Shero bludgeoned his counterparts during the trade deadline period, he not only handed Bylsma an excessive amount of star power but also unprecedented depth.

The Penguins have 26 players at their disposal, and they're using them all.

“I have never been on a team with this kind of depth,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “(Defenseman Mark Eaton) had been playing 20 minutes a game and playing really well. That tells you how many good defensemen are here.”

Eaton's situation illustrates the flexible nature of the Penguins' lineup. The veteran has played 27 games this season, and the Penguins have won 22 of them. But Eaton, who isn't a speedster, struggled with the quick Islanders' forwards. He hasn't played since, as rookie Simon Despres was inserted into the lineup in Games 5 and 6 against the Islanders.

When the more-physical Ottawa Senators arrived for Round 2, defenseman Deryk Engelland, a tough customer, replaced Despres.

And so the rotation goes, players entering and exiting the lineup based largely on the opposition's strengths. It's an unorthodox approach, but the Penguins' depth is rare.

“We have nine legitimate NHL defensemen right now,” assistant coach Todd Reirden said. “We have faith in all of them. Given the situation, we may need them. It's not a ‘for sure' six guys, but we like them all. There are lots of (variables), whether we're at home or on the road, given the opponent. We have lots of things we can do.”

This philosophy is considerably different from the Penguins' approach during their 2009 Stanley Cup run. Back then, it was given that three defensive pairs — Sergei Gonchar/Brooks Orpik, Eaton/Kris Letang and Rob Scuderi/Hal Gill — would be in the lineup. The top three lines, centered by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, never changed.

Through seven playoff games this season, Letang already has seen regular shifts with Paul Martin, Eaton, Despres and Niskanen.

When the Penguins were hungry to shut down Islanders star John Tavares, for instance, Bylsma played his two best skating defensemen, Letang and Martin, together.

“But we're all pretty flexible,” Niskanen said. “I don't think it bothers any of us.”

It might also make the Penguins more difficult to prepare for.

“Obviously they have a lot of depth, a lot of good players,” Ottawa coach Paul MacLean said.

And they aren't afraid to use them.

The Penguins already have used 15 forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies in seven playoff games. Only rookie defenseman Robert Bortuzzo hasn't played.

Assessing the Penguins' depth requires only a look at their current healthy scratches.

In Game 2, these players figure to sit out:

• Left wing Tanner Glass, who played in every regular-season game.

• Right wing Beau Bennett, who ignited Consol Energy Center with the postseason's first goal against the Islanders.

• Jussi Jokinen, who has 13 points in 14 games with the Penguins.

• Eaton, who is among the team's best penalty killers.

• Despres, a talented two-way defenseman who has excelled most of the season.

“I've never been on a team with this kind of talent and these kinds of players,” Niskanen said.

Nor has he been on a team that changes defensive pairings, line combinations and personnel every night.

The plan seems to be working.

“It's been good for us,” Engelland said. “And having competition just to get into the lineup doesn't hurt.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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