Last night in the third period of Game 3, the Penguins were tied 3-3 with the Islanders. NYI had a lot momentum going their way, and rabid energy from the fans. They were * feeling it * after coming back to tie the game and looking to move ahead.
But Pittsburgh had earned a power play after Cal Clutterbuck ran their goalie. Unfortunately for the Pens all of Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust (and Brian Dumoulin too) were still in the penalty box. It was an almost unprecedented situation where five skaters on the ice for each team got put in the sin bin, with no players actually dropping their gloves.
The Pens hadn’t scored a power play goal all series to that moment. And with Letang, Guentzel and Rust unavailable, the only members of their top PP group were Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They augmented the two-headed monster with John Marino to play the point and Kasperi Kapanen and Jeff Carter to join 87 and 71.
It only took 37 seconds for the Pittsburgh power play to get their first goal of the series. Malkin got the puck on the left side, saw Carter down a level with plenty of room and fed him. Carter had already scored a goal earlier in the game.
Carter received the pass and fired the puck short-side on Semyon Varlamov. In Game 2, the last time Carter had the puck on his stick in a similar manner, he had stepped to the middle of the ice to open up Varlamov’s five hole. That probably flashed through both player’s minds for a split second. But Carter didn’t need much more.
Pittsburgh’s power play had gone 0-for-6 before this moment. They needed this goal in a major way.
Now, the question for Mike Sullivan is does he get creative and build upon the success that they found.
Sullivan’s default power play this season, when he’s had them all healthy, has been his first line- minus Dumoulin and plus Malkin to join Crosby, Guentzel, Rust and Letang.
That’s all fair and good, lots of talent there.
But Pittsburgh has never replaced the right hand shot on the left wall since Phil Kessel left. Carter is not a player with the playmaking or power play quarterback tendencies of Kessel. But he is a right shot with 399 career NHL regular season goals (and 42 more in the playoffs).
Carter has shown without a doubt that he is a big game player, and he’s feeling it with Pittsburgh. Carter has scored 12 total goals in 17 games with the Pens (in the regular and postseason combined). With a powerplay that is sucking dirty pond water, this should be an easy call for Mike Sullivan.
Bryan Rust had a fine season on the power play with 6 PPG and 5 assists. However, in the last 24 games now (regular season and playoffs) Rust has 2PPG+2PPA. He also doesn’t really have a set role or directive on the ice, which has been a main problem for the ideology of the whole power play this season.
Guentzel has proven he can play near the net. Crosby is best down low and on the right side of the rink. Letang is going to be the key from the top. Malkin will also be deep. The game-changer would be an adjustment to add Carter on the left-wing wall.
That would allow Crosby to play more down by the crease and Malkin over towards the right. Letang would be at the top in the middle, working it to Carter on his left and Malkin on his right, with options to go high-to-low to find a dynamic Crosby working around the ice.
With such a tight and closely contested series so far, the Pens’ power play needs to be the weapon that helps them pull away from New York. Up until the third period of Game 3, that hadn’t been the case. Jeff Carter wiped that away with the quick snap of his stick, and that can’t be ignored.
Due to all the players in the penalty box, a solution to the top power play alignment and personnel might just have fallen in Sullivan and Todd Reirden’s lap. They can’t afford to ignore the hot hand (literally) that Carter has right now.
Jeff Carter has the ability and shooting talent to elevate the Pens’ top power play and turn what has been a weakness into a strength. He did so, and quickly, in his one chance for them last night. The Pens have the power to make sure that isn’t a one time thing. They should be smart enough to roll with it.