Penguins seek improvement from blue line in Game 2 vs. Islanders
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — With coach Mike Sullivan facing a significant roster decision and the New York Islanders trying to stab at their softest spots, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense corps has opened the postseason under siege.
How they handle the adversity very well could determine if this playoff run is a long or short one.
“We know a lot of the keys lead to us,” Brian Dumoulin said of his teammates on the blue line. “I think we can learn a lot from Game 1 and be better in Game 2.”
With Dumoulin returning from a lower-body injury, Sullivan had seven strong choices for six spots on defense in Game 1. He decided to sit Jack Johnson.
The 32-year-old defenseman who played all 82 games in the regular season said Thursday he wasn’t surprised by the move because he has learned not to be surprised by anything that happens in professional hockey. Still, he wasn’t thrilled.
“Coach said I’m playing well. I’ve done everything they’ve asked of me,” he said. “They just had to make a decision.”
It looks like Sullivan will have to make the same decision before Game 2 on Friday night.
Dumoulin, who left the ice for medical attention after taking a hard check from Brock Nelson in the first period Wednesday, practiced without restrictions Thursday. So did Erik Gudbranson, who went to the locker room briefly after suffering an apparent left leg injury when Anders Lee took him into the boards in the third period.
If Dumoulin and Gudbranson are good to go, Sullivan will have to decide whether to stick with Olli Maatta, who was a minus-2 in a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 1, or turn to Johnson.
Johnson stayed on the ice well after practice ended, skating with Zach Trotman, Teddy Blueger and Casey DeSmith, which would lend credence to the theory that he won’t be in the lineup again Friday.
Sullivan said he will reevaluate the situation on a game-to-game basis.
“It’s not so much about keeping people happy,” Sullivan said. “It’s about trying to make the best decisions that we think help our team win, and everybody has to be on board with that. I think that’s just the nature of the business that we’re in.
“Our coaching staff tries to communicate as honestly and as straightforward as we can with all our players on the decisions that we make and why we make them. As I say to our players all the time, we don’t always expect them to agree with the decisions, but our hope is that they will respect the decisions.”
Whatever personnel group Sullivan chooses, the Penguins will need improvement from their blue line to even the series.
First, they will need to limit the misadventures like the one Kris Letang had in overtime, turning the puck over while leading a rush with a line change going on behind him.
“I was trying to put myself into a shot position, but when I pulled it back, I lost it,” Letang said.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, the mishap occurred while the supremely talented Mathew Barzal was on the ice for the Islanders.
“When you give chances to players like that, it’s the same as giving a chance to (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) on the ice,” Letang said. “They can make you pay.”
Just as importantly, the Penguins defense corps needs to better handle a surprisingly fierce Islanders forecheck.
“They’re a team that’s predictable in their own locker room,” Dumoulin said. “They know the puck’s going deep, and they’re not slowing down at the blue line. They’re still going full speed. They get pucks in. We know we’re getting hit. We just gotta do a good job and keep the puck moving.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .