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Finding four lines has become a big problem

Injuries have finally done in the Penguins’ depth when it comes to being able to rely on a full team

NHL: JAN 16 Penguins at Bruins Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

An ongoing situation for the Penguins has been depth getting tested due to injuries. Their situation has reached a breaking point with Dominik Kahun (concussion) joining Jake Guentzel (shoulder) and Nick Bjugstad (core) on the shelf. Brian Dumoulin (ankle) has been there for a while too. That’s a line’s worth of forwards out, which has caused a few issues.

First, it’s made the team play wingers up the lineup. Dominik Simon, a typical light scorer, has been put on the first line. Bryan Rust has had to shift to left wing. Patric Hornqvist, who has been trending towards third line, is in a top-six role with a star center. Those moves are tough, but manageable, at least for the short term.

The second issue has been the resulting usage of players who wouldn’t be in the lineup at all if there were no injuries. There’s been a rotation of minor leaguers like Andrew Agozzino, Joseph Blandisi, Anthony Angello and Thomas Di Pauli have come and gone, to limited success. Sam Lafferty has been more of a mainstay. Then there’s Alex Galchenyuk who has played his way down to fourth line and remained in the lineup, but has been basically a ghost for the most part. Lightly used and lightly productive.

And lately, on the wrong end of the goals. Galchenyuk has been the most constant on the fourth line. In the last 10 games he’s been on the ice for two goals for compared to seven goals against at 5-on-5 play over just 66 minutes of play. That’s a rate of 6.29 GA/60, which just can’t be sustained. Galchenyuk has been on ice for 38 scoring chances against in the last 10 games. That’s in the range of scoring chances allowed in this period by Teddy Bluger (40), Brandon Tanev (38) and Zach Aston-Reese (37). All the latter three have played almost twice the minutes and against tougher competition. So, yeah, it’s not a pretty sight for the Pens’ fourth line, no matter which minor league players have rotated up with Galchenyuk.

Obviously a team can’t keep playing those type of players that just bleed chances and goals against, so Mike Sullivan basically has stopped using them. Galchenyuk was benched for the last 35 minutes of last night’s game against Florida after, you guessed it, being on the ice for a goal against. Lafferty and Angello essentially suffered the same fate, each getting only very brief shifts from that point on.

Coach Mike Sullivan was asked about this and responded like this last night after the game, per the Trib:

“I’m trying to make decisions behind the bench that I think are going to give us the best chance to win.”

When asked about what it means for the remaining three lines, Sullivan expanded a bit.

“Ideally, we’d like to use the bench more than we did. It’s a hard game out there. But given the circumstances the way the game was going, I thought that was the best decision for tonight and that’s why I did it.”

This isn’t just a champagne problem to not be able to have four reliable lines, and the Pens largely have been able to work around the issue with a strong enough top-nine forward group that remains healthy.

But, as we’ve seen, Pittsburgh has had significant recent issues in third periods of games in terms of performance. This would include last night when the Pens were out-attempted 18-11 by Florida in the third period, and down 2-6 in scoring chances as well. Is this all score effects? Is there any correlation to not having four good lines?

It’s tough not to draw some sort of parallel or at least believe that obviously if the Pens had the Aston-Reese - Blueger - Tanev fourth line as they intended, plus say a Simon - Bjugstad - Hornqvist third line, their team would be a lot stronger and better off.

Alas, that’s not how it is right now. Bjugstad and Kahun aren’t on the immediate horizon to return, and both of their recoveries seem to have unknown futures due to the nature of their injuries. A trade could perhaps come at any time, but can’t and won’t be rushed.

The Pens’ injured season of discontent will continue. It may be a while before Sullivan gets those four lines he needs to roll. At this point with the way things feel and how it’s been one trouble after another, it’ll be a win if they ever get there at all.