It was more bad injury news for the Penguins on Monday, as coach Mike Sullivan announced that forward Evan Rodrigues is out “longer term” after a collision last night in a game against the Rangers. As a reminder, “longer term” in Sullivan-speak usually means an anticipated timeframe of at least 4-8 weeks out of action.
Rodrigues joins defensemen Mike Matheson and Juuso Riikola in a “longer term” absence, with defender Marcus Pettersson “week to week”, a step to the better with a rough period usually of 2-4 weeks.
Without Rodrigues, the forward lines were revamped. The Pens only have two forwards on the practice squad currently, and both of them in Drew O’Connor and Sam Lafferty rotated in on the fourth line.
Here is the Pens' workflow...— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) January 25, 2021
Dumoulin-Letang (Czuczman rotated in with them)
For O’Connor, 22, drawing into an NHL game would mark his debut and first crack at playing in the big league. O’Connor also worked in with the second power play group, although he has practiced with that group last week as well.
For Lafferty, 25, a return to the lineup would be a shot at redemption. Lafferty started the season in the lineup and played the first three games of the year. However, he got increasingly less ice time in all three games, and from playing on the fourth line there wasn’t a lot to begin with (going from 10:55 to 6:36 to just 3:08). Lafferty was basically benched after a bad decision on his part ended up getting turned over and resulting in a goal for the opponent and was demoted to the taxi squad after.
Despite the demotion, Sullivan and the Pens have tried to reinforce what they’re looking for to Lafferty.
Coach Sullivan on Sam Lafferty: "He's a good player. He can really skate. He brings good size and a physical dimension. I had a conversation with Sam yesterday about this. I think for Sam to be in the lineup every night, he just has to bring more consistency to his game."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) January 19, 2021
Has he found that consistency just one week later? It remains to be seen. More than anything else, Lafferty getting a second chance this season would be more about an opportunity opened up by Rodrigues’ injury than anything else, and the decision to go with the relative experience of Lafferty (25, 53 NHL games, third year pro) over a complete greenhorn in O’Connor (22, 0 games, first year pro in this odd pandemic year).
After Rodrigues got hurt, the first three lines were formed last night and experienced a measure of success — Jared McCann and Bryan Rust scored to fuel a comeback win against the Rangers.
The one line that didn’t score was Evgeni Malkin’s group. Kasperi Kapanen is evidently rounding into form and gaining more knowledge of the system, and at this point the Pens really needs him to step up and become the member of the team that they anticipated when acquiring him. Malkin needs the jolt.
Evgeni Malkin has just two points in his first six games of the season.— Danny (@shireyirving) January 25, 2021
When he's on the ice, the Penguins are getting outshot and outchanced by a significant margin. pic.twitter.com/3VjZQTDC92
For his part, Sullivan didn’t sound too bent out of shape by Malkin’s early season slow start.
“I think it’s a matter of time before Geno finds his game consistently,” Sullivan said. “We know what he’s capable of. We’re just trying to encourage him and help him through the process and surround him with people who can help him capture his best game.”
It looks like Kapanen will get the next chance to help Malkin capture that best game tomorrow night in Boston.
The positive for the Pens is that the Sidney Crosby line has fully woken up with the placement of Rust back on Crosby’s right. Crosby was dominant last night with an almost 65% Corsi share, 75% xGF% and on ice for two goals for, none against.
So while the Pens have a decision to make for tomorrow between the relative experience of Lafferty or the youth of O’Connor to get into the lineup, if the Crosby line can continue to play at such a high level it will no doubt be the key driver of the team while they experiment with further combinations that might get the best out of Malkin as well.