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Sully’s solution for losing streak? Splitting Malkin and Kessel for starters

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The Penguins looks to get out of an 0-3-1 hole by breaking up some talent

NHL: New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After a long and successful road trip towards the end of October, the Pittsburgh Penguins were home for three of four games. They went 0-3-1 and generally looked very bad. The Pens have been outscored a combined 10-1 in the last two games, both at home. For a team typically among the league leaders in home wins this is a shocking turn of events.

“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We believe in this team. The answers are in that dressing room.”

Sullivan’s looking for answers in the wake of the past two really bad performances. He usually is good about knowing when to push what button to make this team go. Today the move looks like some new lines.

The biggest change is the split of Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Malkin has played 184ish 5v5 minutes so far this season and Kessel has been out there for 164:51 of them, an amazingly high percentage. This has been a big time combination for the Pens, who have scored 4.37 goals/60 with Malkin+Kessel out there, which is almost unheard of 5v5 production in this day and age. (And for those curious about how much Pittsburgh has yielded defensively with those two high-risk offensive players, it’s only been 2.91 goals against/60).

But, the third line production has been almost invisible and this split of Malkin and Kessel will offer a lot more balance.

Plus - there’s an interesting hidden positive too. And that’s the return of Geno and the two Swedish best friends. Carl Hagelin + Patric Hornqvist + Malkin has equaled a ton of success too for Pittsburgh.

This line has seriously done a solid job, and best of all seems like it is very sustainable given a high (but considering the sources realistic) shooting percentage. Hagelin-Malkin-Hornqvist has tipped the ice in the past heavily in Pittsburgh’s favor and should help get Hornqvist going more.

As noted here earlier, Hornqvist’s fire and emotion is always a key to how the Pens play. And though Hornqvist has some pretty decent production relative to his teammates with 5 even strength points this season, he hasn’t spent a ton of time with the quality star centers, and outside of a couple spurts here and there, hasn’t gotten going yet. This could change that in a major way.

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The other big change is the move of Jake Guentzel away from the top line with Sidney Crosby. This is probably necessary, at least temporarily, because Guentzel has stopped shooting the puck. He only has one goal in the last eight games, and in four of those eight games Guentzel has either 0 or 1 shot on goal. That’s not good enough to cut it playing with a premiere playmaker like Crosby.

This change is also a pretty seismic one; much like Malkin+Kessel, Guentzel+Crosby have been practically joined at the hip this young season. Of Guentzel’s 200 5v5 minutes so far, he’s spent 178 of them with #87 as his center. The pair has been successful with a 56.6% Corsi For% and 11 Goals for Pittsburgh to just 4 against, but referring to the paragraph above, Guentzel has been slumping recently and creating very little. For now, good time to switch things up and try something new.

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The new-look third line with Guentzel and Kessel flanking Riley Sheahan is where you REALLY wish Derick Brassard was healthy. Brassard still didn’t skate in practice today, and though Sullivan indicated they’re not rushing him, he’s going on two weeks into a “day-to-day injury” with no end in sight, which is always concerning when the team is struggling.

Anyways, Sheahan has just one 5v5 goal and one assist in 140 minutes played this season. He’s bounced from wing to center and played with a myriad of different linemates but the only constant has been a lack of contributing much.

Further, in the past Guentzel-Sheahan-Kessel hasn’t been operating with the utmost efficiency:

Which isn’t to say this is necessarily doomed to fail, but the underlying metrics of this line show the past isn’t as successful as Malkin and the Swedes. The new 3rd line does has 12 Goals for in 190 minutes, to just 8 against - which is good! However their 12.5% shooting rate is probably going to come back to earth and they’ve given up slightly more scoring chances than they’ve generated, indicating they spend more time in their own zone than ideal.

Now, that’s just the past, and the future isn’t necessarily bound to follow that script exactly. Guentzel and Kessel could really light a spark and Sheahan did generate 17 assists last season (good enough for 7th on the whole team), so perhaps he can demonstrate more in-zone passing ability and create some chances for two more skilled wingers to shoot on.

Either way, one would think a Guentzel-Brassard-Kessel 3rd line would be much more dangerous offensively and a quicker line to boot. Alas, Sullivan can only work with what is healthy for now.

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For the top line, Crosby and Dominik Simon have 60%+ metrics in 304 minutes together in Corsi, Scoring Chances, High Danger Scoring Chances, Goals For, High Danger Goals For - you name it. Pittsburgh is scoring 3.75 goals/60 with Crosby+Simon and yielding 1.97 against, so this is definitely a combination to want to see more of.

Bryan Rust has been struggling this season, but he adds speed and some top-end familiarity and two-way play to the line. This is a good chance to get him going and hopefully back to producing points. At 164 5v5 minutes so far in 2018-19, Rust only has 2 points (1g+1a). Last season in 69 games he had 6g+18a so there is reason to believe he has more to offer.

If not, it remains unknown if the coaches would give Daniel Sprong a look but this seems a perfect time for a couple shifts a game of Simon-Crosby-Sprong to see if the youngster can provide anything in the form of tangible offense. Given his skillset, you would think so. But, so far they haven’t been quick to give Crosby-Sprong a chance in the regular season after seeing it in preseason.

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When NHL teams get stuck in a rut, new lines are a tried and true way to mix things up and look for change. The Pens will go to this and see if breaking up two constants in Guentzel-Crosby and Malkin-Kessel can help get that 3rd line going and pitching in. If not, there’s always a reunification of the old and no line combination really lasts forever, but if there’s some success - and Malkin-Hornqvist has a lot to look back on - it opens up more options moving forward.

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The power play also looks different, with a very rare appearance of basically a split-talent squad of two balanced pairs.

I’m not making too much out of this, besides that the power play overall is 2 for the last 19 and every once in a while about all you can do is shake things up.

No reason to get too bent out of shape over it, surely before too long the Pens will revert back to the optimal way of scoring power play goals by overloading all the talent back on the top group which led them to a historic 25% power play last year. Would be silly to expect anything else. For now though, when a team is in a rut, it’s interesting to mix things up and jolt the players into paying attention.