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Coach Bylsma, Penguins play numbers game

| Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011

Dan Bylsma, like many hockey coaches, possesses an interesting habit of calling players by their numbers instead of their names.

If the Penguins can remain healthy — and that's a big if — Bylsma might sound like an auctioneer by season's end.

The coach has been waiting almost two years to implement new lines and to experiment with combinations, and now he finally gets his opportunity.

Here is a recent sample from Bylsma: "Well, 87 (Sidney Crosby) and 71 (Evgeni Malkin) will play together. Eleven (Jordan Staal) will play with 71 more than in the past. We might entertain 87 on the wing with 11 as well."

Got that?

The Penguins are hoping the rest of the NHL will have trouble keeping up, too.

Bylsma will always have the "three-center model" to rely on — Crosby, Malkin and Staal playing center on three different lines is essentially a matchup nightmare for every NHL team — but believes his current team's lineup is capable of a more diverse approach.

"When it's all said and done," Bylsma said, "Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are all going to play around 20 minutes. Either the fourth line center isn't going to play at all, or we're going to move people around."

The fourth line center — Joe Vitale, Richard Park, or Craig Adams — is going to play, of course. So, expect Bylsma to have some fun with his lines.

Staal and Malkin playing on the same line won't necessarily become a constant, but the plan appears to have the duo on the same line in the third period when the Penguins are trailing. They also expect to see steady shifts for the first time since showing exceptional chemistry during their respective rookie years.

"I'm OK with that," Staal said. "I like playing with Geno. There are so many possibilities right now. We have a lot of options. I'm satisfied if we're winning."

They are winning, which gives Bylsma more ability to experiment.

Not everyone, however, believes experimenting is necessary. Islanders defenseman Mark Eaton, who won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009, wouldn't alter the three-center model.

"When Sid, Geno and Jordan are at center," Eaton said, "that basically gives them three No. 1 lines."

Still, the Penguins want more. In recent games, Bylsma has put Crosby on a line with Malkin and right wing James Neal. Scoring chances feel almost destined when they are on the ice.

"We're still figuring things out," said Bylsma, who noted that he continues to monitor Crosby's ice time closely, which may prohibit the coach from opening up the playbook completely for a couple of weeks.

"It will play itself out."

Pascal Dupuis might be the key player in Bylsma's plans. Dupuis has been used off and on at center the past couple of games on a line with left wing Matt Cooke and right wing Tyler Kennedy. Should Dupuis be able to handle a third-line center role, Bylsma would have an opportunity to play Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Neal, left wing Steve Sullivan and left wing Chris Kunitz in his top-six rotation.

"I'll play where he wants me to play," Dupuis said. "I'll battle hard and see how it goes."

Having different combinations to rely on could make an elite team like the Penguins even more dangerous.

"We're healthy," Staal said. "We're a full team again. It will be interesting to see how we do."

It will also be interesting to see how the Jack Adams award winning coach tinkers with the lineup he's waited on for years.

Drawing the line(s)

The Penguins may try different line combinations in coming games:

Malkin (8), Crosby (2), Neal (13)

> > When offense is needed, these three will see time together

Sullivan (4), Staal (12), Malkin (8)

> > Staal and Malkin will see considerable ice time together

Crosby (2), Staal (12), Neal (13)

> > The wild card: Crosby has never played on a line with Staal but may this year

Cooke (5), Dupuis (6), Kennedy (3)

> > If this third line can work, it opens up all kinds of possibilities for the top two units

*—Goals in parentheses

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