Penguins shuffle deck, rout Islanders
When the Pittsburgh Penguins took the ice for the second period Thursday night, Patric Hornqvist stayed behind in the locker room with an injury.
This was bad news. Hornqvist was not only the hat-trick hero of the team’s previous game, he also was the heart-and-soul leader who declared the last win as the one that was going to turn the season around for the team.
In his absence, coach Mike Sullivan was forced to try all sorts of different combinations up front.
Nearly every one of them came up aces.
Phil Kessel and Kris Letang scored twice apiece as the Penguins routed the New York Islanders, 6-2, at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins improved to 5-2-2 in their last nine games and moved into a tie with the Islanders and Rangers for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.
“This year hasn’t started off the best for us, but we’re right in it and there’s a lot of hockey to play,” Kessel said. “We’ve just got to keep improving and getting better.”
Sullivan did not have an update on Hornqvist’s condition after the game. The coach said he couldn’t say whether it was related to the concussion that recently forced Hornqvist to miss three games.
The first thing Sullivan did when Hornqvist went down was bump up Riley Sheahan to fill his spot alongside Evgeni Malkin and Tanner Pearson on the second line.
Sheahan promptly whacked in an airborne rebound of a Malkin shot with a waist-high swing in a scoring line-caliber display of hand-eye coordination to make the score 3-1 about seven minutes into the second period.
“I just thought we played hard, and when we play hard, we can put combinations together that have success,” Sullivan said.
When the Penguins went on a power play a few minutes later, Jake Guentzel replaced Hornqvist at the front of the net. He was in the middle of a highlight-reel passing play that gave them a 4-1 lead.
The puck went from Malkin in the right circle to Guentzel at the right post to Sidney Crosby below the goal line to Kessel for a shot into an empty net at the left post.
With the lines still scrambled later in the period, the rarely used even-strength combination of Crosby and Kessel struck. This time, Crosby passed through the crease to feed Kessel for a gimme at the right post.
“I got a couple of tap-ins from Sid,” Kessel said. “It’s nice to get those.”
Kessel said he thought his makeshift line with Crosby and Guentzel had some good shifts and some bad shifts. Sullivan offered a slightly more positive assessment.
“I thought they were really good, so we stayed with it for the rest of the game,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes that happens over the course of a game if you’re forced to juggle the lineup like we were.”
The four-point performance snapped a seven-game goal drought for Kessel, who apparently wasn’t sweating the slump.
“It’s the same stuff every year,” Kessel said. “I go through these little dry patches. It is what it is.”
Before Hornqvist’s injury, Letang played a starring role for the Penguins, scoring twice in the first period.
The second goal came at a pivotal point in the game.
It came after the Penguins gave up a short-handed goal for the third straight game to fall into a 1-1 tie. They lead the league with eight short-handed goals against.
“Obviously it’s something we’d like to try to get rid of if we can,” goalie Casey DeSmith said.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.