Familiar Penguins lines feature Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin-Phil Kessel pairings
As injuries continue to deplete the Penguins' depth chart at forward, coach Mike Sullivan opted for familiarity to help cope.
Line rushes during Thursday's practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex featured Jake Guentzel on a wing of Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel on the right side of Evgeni Malkin.
Those pairings were instrumental in the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup last spring — the four combined to average exactly a point per game per player, posting 39 goals and 60 assists in 25 games.
Various circumstances and Sullivan's desire for balance have separated the duos for much of this season. But with Patric Hornqvist, Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney out because of injuries, Conor Sheary just coming back and three rookie forwards in the projected lineup, the Penguins on Thursday reverted to what has worked in the not-too-distant past.
Sullivan repeatedly has indicated he prefers a lineup in which Crosby, Malkin and Kessel play on different lines. But he also said matchups, injuries and other factors necessitate flexibility.
“If we have a full, healthy complement of players, sometimes we opt to go with the balanced attack,” Sullivan said. “I think what is great about our organization — or about our players — is we have versatility. We can load the top six if we want, or we can spread them amongst the top nine and create a balanced attack. And depending on the game or the situation, that's going to dictate which way we go.”
Each of the Penguins' stars is riding a hot streak: Kessel has 24 points in his past 16 games, Malkin has 21 goals in his past 22 games and Crosby has 25 points in his past 14. Malkin has climbed to second in the NHL in goals with 30; he's tied for fourth in points with 65. Kessel is No. 2 in points (65) and Crosby is tied for eighth (60).
The player who might benefit the most from the shuffling is Guentzel, who went without a point in 12 of the 15 games before Tuesday's win against Vegas in which he was re-united with Crosby. Guentzel on Thursday said of his second NHL season, “I don't think I have been very good.”
“Whenever you get a chance to play with (Crosby), it's exciting,” Guentzel said. “I'm looking forward to the opportunity, and hopefully I'll take advantage of it.”
Said Crosby: “There shouldn't be a lot of feeling out and getting used to each other. But yeah, he's a smart player, he can shoot the puck and we have some chemistry there, so hopefully we can build on that.”