At this point we know the Pittsburgh Penguins are pretty secure in their playoff spot and there is a fairly good chance their First Round opponent is going to be the New York Rangers. The biggest question might be where that series begins and where a potential Game 7 might have to be played. With their playoff situation looking strong now would be a good time to start experimenting with a few things to see if you can find some potential solutions for the playoffs. (Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar basically admitted his team is going to be doing this the rest of the way because he does not want to be surprised in the playoffs when he has to tinker with some things).
We have seen a little bit of that over the past couple of games.
Among the lineup and in-game choices we have seen....
- Mark Friedman has been a regular in the lineup while Marcus Pettersson has been the odd man out.
- Kris Letang has been playing next to Mike Matheson while Brian Dumoulin has been paired with John Marino.
- On Tuesday night in Nashville the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel-Bryan Rust line was split so that Rust could play next to Evgeni Malkin, with Evan Rodrigues moving to the top line.
- Crosby and Malkin actually saw some ice time together on a couple of shifts after penalty kill situations,
Let’s start with the defense.
The Letang-Matheson pairing probably seems weird given their matching skillsets and playing styles, but I have long argued (and back it up with the numbers!) how Letang traditionally plays at his best when he is paired with a defenseman that can match his playing style, and not necessarily a “responsible defensive presence.” Dumoulin has been a nice balancing act because he has that defensive ability, but he has also been able to skate a little bit and move the puck. But Letang’s best numbers have been next to guys like, say, Paul Martin. That is still true this season with Matheson.
I know they had that mishap in the third period last night at the blue line that resulted in a goal against, but their numbers together this season have been great, even if the sample size is small. In 180 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time the Letang-Matheson duo owns a 53 percent share of better of total shot attempts, expected goals, and scoring chances, while outscoring teams by a 14-5 margin. Those are Letang’s best numbers with any partner this season, including Dumoulin. The numbers hold true back to last season as well. I would be interested to see how that duo does.
The concern is that Dumoulin and Marino have not exactly posted strong numbers next to one another. That is a little disappointing because the other pairing of Mark Friedman and Chad Ruhwedel has looked strong.
It might be lunacy to suggest, but what if Dumoulin is the odd man out at some point? I do not expect the Penguins to sit him, but his contract number for next season and his play this season are not really matching up for the Penguins. Just a thought.
As for the forward lines, it was only one game with the wrong result but I have no real objections to how they played. The new-look Crosby and Malkin lines were both mostly outstanding (and Mike Sullivan was pretty adamant that he liked his team’s game in his post-game press conference) and controlled play all night. They just did not put the puck in the net, and to be fair, the guy in the other crease had a lot to do with that. He is pretty good, and he played at his highest level on Tuesday.
Then there was the brief Crosby-Malkin experiment. They ended up playing more than three minutes together on Tuesday after playing just three minutes together all season. They were typically deployed together right after penalty kills, and it was a similar story as the rest of the game. They controlled the play, just did not get the reward. It is one of those little things that could eventually make a big impact. You load up with your two best players when the other team’s best players are tired and on the bench and see what happens. Dan Bylsma always used to strategically use Crosby and Malkin together after opponents would ice the puck with their fourth line on the ice, or load up with them right before he knew TV timeouts were set to arrive. Get them on the ice together right before they were going to get a break. Just a little bit of an advantage you can sneak in that might go unnoticed.
Results still matter for the Penguins right now because seeding is important and you want to finish as high as possible, but this is still a great time to see what works and what does not work. You want to figure that out now instead of Game 4 against the New York Rangers or Carolina Hurricanes or Washington Capitals.