Penguins shake up lines, power-play personnel as losing streak rolls on
It’s one of those sayings that ends up on motivational posters or social media memes, sometimes accompanied by a picture of a cute kitten.
If nothing changes, nothing changes.
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is more of a dog guy, but it’s clear he’s a big believer in the poster’s philosophy anyway.
After watching his team run its losing streak to four games with a 5-1 home loss to New Jersey on Monday night, there were lineup changes galore when the team practiced Tuesday morning in Cranberry.
The team’s vaunted top power-play unit was broken up, and the dynamic duo of Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel found themselves on different lines.
No one will accuse Sullivan of changing nothing.
“I think sometimes when you go through some struggles or some challenges, sometimes a little bit of change can spark the necessary energy or whatever it is we need to try to get us back on track here,” he said.
The power-play change is the biggest needle mover.
The Penguins had the league’s top power play last season, converting at an impressive 26.2 percent success rate with largely static personnel. Malkin, Kessel, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist were up front. The only changes were on the point, where Kris Letang and Justin Schultz would rotate.
Now that they’re 2 for their last 19 on the power play and gave up a critical short-handed goal in a 3-2 shootout loss to the New York Islanders last Thursday, changes were made.
“It’s a wake-up call,” Hornqvist said. “We haven’t been at our best.”
At practice, Kessel and Malkin anchored one unit on the half-walls, with Hornqvist at the net front, Bryan Rust in the slot and Olli Maatta at the point.
Crosby and Letang were on the half-walls of the other unit, with Jake Guentzel at the net front, Dominik Simon in the slot and Jack Johnson on the point.
Sullivan tried the split power-play approach once before early in his tenure as coach but quickly scrapped the idea. Frankly, he’s not sure if the idea will have staying power this time, either.
“I do know, as a group of five, in the big picture, that power play is going to be our mainstay, but to this point, they’ve had their fair share of struggles,” Sullivan said. “As a coaching staff, we’re trying to walk the fine line of letting them work through some of the challenges, but at some point, if we don’t see signs of progress or something we can hang our hat on to build momentum, then sometimes a little bit of change isn’t a bad thing.”
The biggest change to the line combinations was splitting up Malkin and Kessel.
They’re world-class talents who have shown amazing chemistry at times, but Sullivan said the Penguins need to simplify their game to snap out of their losing streak. Malkin and Kessel don’t specialize in simple.
“We’re hoping just simplifying the game for everyone and taking some of the thinking out of it and just getting after it and trying to establish some momentum will help us,” Sullivan said.
In the new lineup, Malkin is flanked by Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin. It led all Penguins lines in even-strength goals last season, outscoring opponents 18-10. In the past, Sullivan has said he likes the trio because it encourages Malkin to shoot more.
“No, I’m the shooter,” Hornqvist joked. “Obviously he’s the shooter. We want Geno to have as much puck as he can. Me and Haggy create lanes for him, go to the net, open up space for him because that’s when he’s at his best.”
Kessel, meanwhile, skated on the third line with Jake Guentzel and Riley Sheahan in another throwback combination. Last season, the trio produced the second-most even-strength goals for any Penguins line. They outscored opponents 12-8.
“They see the game really well,” Sullivan said. “Those guys potentially could be a dangerous line for us.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.