After losing seven games in a row head coach Mike Sullivan made some big changes to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup going into Washington on Wednesday night.
Kasperi Kapanen found himself as a healthy scratch (which is another concern we can dig into for another day), while the defense pairings were completely shuffled around.
This was a change that seemed long overdue, especially given the struggles of the top defense pairing with Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. The latter’s struggles have been well documented over the past year, and especially in the first part of this season’s schedule, and it was getting painfully obvious that something needed to change.
Overall, there is not much to complain about given that the Penguins were 4-1 winners in Washington, snapped their losing streak, and played a mostly solid game. It was not perfect by any means, but when you have lost seven games in a row you are in no position to look for perfection. You just need two points. They got them.
So how did the reshuffled defense pairs perform, keeping in mind it is only a single game?
Kris Letang and Marcus Pettersson
These two have spent some time together over the past few years. It’s not a lot, only about 225 minutes, but they are not totally unfamiliar next to each other. They have had some success in those minutes, outscoring teams by a 15-7 margin and having possession numbers that are consistently on the positive side of the scale.
I have always argued (both by the eye test and the numbers) that Letang has always played better next to a defense partner that can better match his skating and offensive skills than next to the classic “stay at home guy that can cover for him.”
He was always at his worst next to the Rob Scuderi’s of the world, and always played better next to the people that would not normally be seen as a good complement due to their styles.
The beauty of Dumoulin in his prime was that he had the defensive ability people wanted next to Letang but with just enough skating and offensive skills to not hold the whole thing back.
But as Dumoulin has rapidly declined, it starting to get back into that Scuderi territory where things are not working. So I was very curious to see how the Letang-Pettersson pairing would perform.
On Wednesday, the numbers were not great.
They spent more than 16 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time together, mostly playing with the top line and getting a majority of offensive zone starts.
The Penguins generated just seven total shot attempts in that time and allowed 28, while they were badly outchanced (14-2) and below a 30 percent share in every possession category. The good news: They did not get scored on.
Honestly, it was a tough night for them and the top line in that regard.
Having said that, it is only one game so I am not going to give up on the pairing overall. I want to see how it performs in a larger sampling, especially since we saw the previous duo was not working over an extended period of time.
Another point worth mentioning here: At one point the Penguins were literally running out of defenseman due to injuries and getting absolutely gassed with the workload could have absolutely played a role in some of those numbers.
P-0 Joseph and Jeff Petry
The new defense pairings ended up getting thrown into a blender when P-O Joseph and Jan Rutta did not start the third period, but Joseph and Petry at least had a solid start in a VERY limited sampling. They played just seven minutes together, but they were a very useful seven minutes. They had the majority share of the shot attempts and scoring chances and did well.
It was encouraging because Petry has struggled a bit over the past few games.
I still have big hopes for him being a significant addition this season.
Petry also spent a significant amount of time playing next to Dumoulin, and again, they faired mostly well, scoring a goal and finishing on the positive side of the shots and scoring chances.
I think Joseph has earned a bigger role than just third-pairing duty so hopefully his injury is not too serious and he is able to get an extended look in a larger role.
Brian Dumoulin and Jan Rutta
On one hand putting your two least successful defensemen for the season on the same pairing seems counter productive. But it also allowed them to be in a more sheltered role where they didn’t have to play as many big minutes.
The injury situation obviously sent things into chaos, but Dumoulin and Rutta held their own when they were together.
Overall Wednesday might have been Dumoulin’s best game of the season statistically regardless of who his partner was. It’s not much, but maybe it’s something to build on.
The Penguins needed to change something and shuffling the defense pairs was a good place to start. They got the result they wanted and needed. No idea what happens this weekend given the injury situation, but assuming everybody is healthy I think there is something here with these new pairings that is worth looking at for a while to see how it works.
We know the previous lineup was not working. So let us see what this alignment can do.