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Weighing options for Mike Sullivan’s post-Game 1 adjustments

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Looking at what the Penguins can try to do better next game against the Montreal Canadiens

Ottawa Senators v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

After Saturday night’s Game 1 overtime loss to the underdog Montreal Canadiens, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is going to have to go back to the drawing board. Major tweaks aren’t needed or helpful, and there’s no point to panic and make wholesale changes. The Pens controlled 60% of all shot attempts in the Game, firing 96 total towards Carey Price. They got 41 on goal. 5v5 scoring chances and high danger chances were 55.9% and 57.8%, respectively (according to Natural Stat Trick). The Pens did a lot of good things.

But Game 1 input shows there are several areas where the Pens can improve. Let’s weigh some of these options.

For the love of God, scratch Jack Johnson

It’s beating a dead horse but that doesn’t make it any less true. Jack Johnson consistently costs the Penguins and has a career worth of data to show WAY more bad things happen to his team than good things while he’s on the ice. He makes mental and physical mistakes at inopportune times. He’s got to go. Sullivan realized this way back in the 2019 playoffs, making Johnson a healthy scratch for Game 1 of the NYI series. He needs to do that again after another poor performance in Game 1 against Montreal.

The team seems to trust Chad Ruhwedel more than Juuso Riikola, but no matter who it is the team will improve and be better off by benching their worst player and literally plugging in anyone else.

A common question is “why does Sullivan play Jack Johnson when it’s clear Johnson’s results are so bad?” This is a reasonable thing to ask. Clearly the decision isn’t being made in a data-driven way or putting much stock in past results. This also burns the Pens.

The real answer is the penalty kill. Johnson’s 2:12 per game on ice while short-handed was tied for the team lead with Kris Letang. The team trusts Johnson on the PK to block shots, be a physical presence and help in that realm.

Should the team trust him? Johnson’s 4v5 Goals Allowed/60 this year was 5.59, ranking third among six regular PKing defenders. That’s well and good, but Johnson does not excel in driving excellent penalty kill results (it’s unsurprising to note the Pens give up 91 Corsi Events per hour against with JJ on the ice at 4v5, by far the highest on the team), so the contribution of actual PK work does not outweigh the 5v5 liability that Johnson creates for the Pens.

Even if the team dresses an extra right-handed defenseman like Ruhwedel (who had a 5.77 GA/60 at 4v5 while playing 1:17 per game), Pittsburgh should be fine killing penalites without Johnson. Using Letang + Brian Dumoulin, then also Marcus Pettersson and John Marino (both of whom DID drive excellent PK results this season) are more than enough.

Power play struggles

This one is frustrating because you could see it coming a mile away. Late last week I wrote an article on “Power play personnel, alignment needs adjustment for the Pens”. I cited Crosby and Evgeni Malkin preferring the same spot on the ice as the Pens’ biggest problem, but after seeing a 1-for-7 PP effort in Game 1 (where the star-studded top unit didn’t score the goal), a bigger problem has emerged. The Pens still don’t know what to do or how to replace Phil Kessel on the left wall.

They tried Jared McCann there in Phase 3 training camp. Crosby and Malkin at different points have migrated over to the left wall, a place as a left handed shot that they really shouldn’t be.

The Pens’ personnel continues to change and flutter for no apparent reason. Jason Zucker got some of his first work with the top group. Letang and Justin Schultz are swapped intermittently, almost just trying to throw something against the wall and see what sticks.

Patric Hornqvist hasn’t been used with the top group. The Pens also got little traffic in front of Carey Price, who was able to easily read and setup miles ahead of time for easily predictable passes and shots from distance that Pittsburgh was attempting with increasing futility. The Pens’ only PP goal came with Hornqvist parked in front of Price and Bryan Rust was able to find a loose puck (which struck Hornqvist) quicker than Price. Not a surprise!

The team needs answers and needs them quick for this group that is now a total of 1-for-10 in the last week, counting the exhibition game against Philadelphia. It’s not clicking and even worse, it doesn’t look like any of the changes they are trying are changing anything.

Third line woes

Pittsburgh’s third line has been fascinating to me since camp started. The Crosby and Malkin lines make sense with their skill. The fourth line is the best defensive players who have great chemistry and work well together.

Then you just have three somewhat random pieces thrown together with Jared McCann centering veterans Patrick Marleau and Patric Hornqvist.

The trio was easily the Pens’ worst line last night, they generated the fewest chances (only 8 shot attempts for Pittsburgh while on the ice) and were all in the 32-36% zone for Corsi. This shoehorned line didn’t work.

McCann did not have a shot on goal, though he did attempt four shots (three of which Montreal blocked, the fourth was shot wide of the target). That makes 23 games and counting since McCann’s last goal. Marleau also had no shots on goal, making those two forwards the only two Pens not to register a SOG in Game 1.

Does Sullivan consider finding a spot for Evan Rodrigues or Sam Lafferty, both of whom had great training camps? Does he look at moving Hornqvist back up with Crosby at even strength in an effort to get more push towards the net? Lots of ideas to consider, especially with a versatile piece like Rodrigues who is proficient at all three forward spots.

The only thing for sure, that line didn’t work at all and Pittsburgh just can’t have players that invisible.

Goalie situation

The Pens’ goalie situation is always going to be an area to monitor and assess, especially after a loss.

Sullivan was terse with a post-game assessment of Matt Murray, saying simply, “ “I thought he was solid,” and leaving it at that.

Murray allowed three goals on 35 shots. He was pretty good in overtime, making a couple of odd man saves. The Pens were outshot 12-7 in the OT frame. Murray allowed two goals on the rush — one to Nick Suzuki as a result of a bad pinch by Brian Dumoulin. Another as Johnson/Schultz turned a 3v3 rush somehow into a 3v5 situation. Pittsburgh needs to tighten up a bit there, but that is more on the defense than the goalie. Murray performed well enough for the team to win in Game 1, which probably is going to earn him the net in Game 2.

What buttons Sullivan goes to push and how he adjusts will be an important decision as the Pens/Habs series moves into its second chapter.

Poll

Which change would you most like to see the Penguins make for Game 2?

This poll is closed

  • 50%
    Scratch Jack Johnson
    (1003 votes)
  • 24%
    Add Hornqvist to the power play
    (490 votes)
  • 14%
    Play Rodrigues and/or use a different 3rd line
    (281 votes)
  • 8%
    Switch goalies
    (180 votes)
  • 2%
    Something else
    (52 votes)
2006 votes total Vote Now