RALEIGH, N.C. – Due to the ability of in-season acquisitions Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad to play multiple positions up and down the lineup, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had a plethora of options to choose from when figuring out how to replace injured center Evgeni Malkin.
He decided to bank on Teddy Blueger.
The 24-year-old rookie centered the second line with wingers Bryan Rust and Phil Kessel in the team’s first game without Malkin on Sunday, and the trio remained intact as the Penguins took morning skate in preparation for a critical game Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.
The third-place Penguins have a three-point lead on the fourth-place Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division standings, but Carolina has two games in hand. The teams will meet again March 31 at PPG Paints Arena.
Matt Murray will start in goal Tuesday night for the Penguins. For his career, he’s 4-0-0 with a .976 save percentage in Raleigh.
The second-line decision showed faith in Blueger, who has four goals in 19 games this season and has demonstrated an NHL-caliber two-way game.
“He’s played really well and he’s earned it,” center Matt Cullen said. “It’s good to see him getting that opportunity. I thought last game, he was really good. Obviously with Geno out, we need him to fill that role. I’ve been impressed with his game. He’s fought his way and earned his way through.”
It also shows that Sullivan did not want to disrupt his first and third lines.
Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and McCann have shown significant offensive chemistry in the past few weeks. Dominik Simon, Patric Hornqvist and Bjugstad have formed the team’s most effective possession line.
Sullivan said he would keep a close eye on the combination of Rust, Blueger and Kessel to see how things are going, but he thinks it’s a trio that shows potential.
“With Teddy and Rusty, we’ve got speed on the line,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got two conscientious players that play a 200-foot game. They’re good at getting in on the forecheck and forcing turnovers. Hopefully, with Phil’s offensive instincts, that line could work for us as far as generating offense but also being a line that has a sound defensive conscience as well.”
As for Blueger, he said he’s trying to take his promotion from the fourth line in stride.
“I try not to think of it like that,” he said. “You just go into each game and focus on playing your best, doing your best, getting better and helping the team win. Obviously we hope (Malkin will) be back soon. He’s a big part of this team.”
Blueger said he thought the line was effective against Philadelphia on Sunday, and that he is growing more comfortable the more he plays with high-end offensive talents like Malkin and Kessel.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Blueger said. “Those guys are so creative and so smart. The passes they make are so unorthodox, you could say. Just try to give them the puck and open up some room for them as best as I can.”