A funny thing happened this weekend with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They kept scoring goals with each other’s wingers. Saturday against Washington, an early line change by Crosby got Malkin onto the ice, and Malkin assisted on a goal for Bryan Rust.
The script was flipped on Sunday, when Crosby and Rickard Rakell found themselves on the ice together briefly and also spontaneously and combined for points on three goals, including two that Rakell helped set up for Crosby to score.
That included overtime, where Rakell’s brilliant play to pass it down made for an easy tap in for Crosby’s 1400th NHL point. More importantly it was a game winning goal to break a season-long four game losing streak.
This led to an obvious question for Mike Sullivan’s post-game press conference, would he consider shuffling his top lines? Understandably, with results like what he got on Sunday, the coach is open to the idea.
Sullivan said putting Rakell with Crosby "is certainly an option, that's for sure. That's a discussion we've already had. One reason Hexy got Rak was because he's a guy that could play with either Sid or Geno. Depending on how it plays out, we know Rusty can play with Geno."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) April 10, 2022
The Penguins have tried putting Rakell on Crosby’s line already for a few games, with the bigger priority to see if moving Rust down could help Malkin’s line at even strength. Results were mixed, and as so often happens, order was restored with Rust finding himself where he always ends up — on Crosby’s right wing.
One advantage for Pittsburgh now, is some of the chemistry shown between Rakell and Crosby. It also presents a unique wrinkle for the lineup because Crosby hasn’t really had a playmaking winger with above average vision, creativity and passing ability since perhaps dating all the way back to Marian Hossa.
For as good as Jake Guentzel is, he is a natural goal-scorer and a winger with more shooting instincts. Guentzel hasn’t yet cracked the 40 assist mark in his career (though this year at a career-high 38 and counting, he’s a good bet to get there). He does have a 40-goal season, which is harder to get than a 40-assist season. Rust isn’t unable to pass the puck either, but in more known for other aspects of his game besides playmaking.
Rakell’s ability to find Crosby didn’t go unnoticed by the captain, either.
Sidney Crosby on Rickard Rakell setting up his goals: "He put it right on my tape on both of them. That's just him making great plays. I just tried to capitalize."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) April 10, 2022
With 28 goals this season, Crosby is the team’s second leading goal scorer behind Guentzel and his 33 tallies. Having a player with above-average ability to make plays like Rakell can would be a very strong boost to the Pittsburgh offense.
Would Sullivan entertain swapping the left wingers on the top lines as well, for a full switcheroo of top-six players? That seems less likely, there’s no reason to believe Sullivan would have much appetite to move Guentzel away from Crosby. That is something that the Penguins rarely if ever do — if given the opportunity, Crosby and Guentzel play together. (It also doesn’t help that the Guentzel-Malkin-Rust line played together on Friday when Crosby was sick and out of the lineup. Pittsburgh got shutout).
But a slight tweak could go a long way. A potential Guentzel-Crosby-Rakell first line offers a lot of skill up top, and just because Rakell can make a play doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to shoot the puck either.
On the OT winner, Rickard Rakell said he was definitely thinking about shooting at first. "But then it felt like they were all coming out at me. Saw Sid on the back door and just tried to get it to him. It was nice to see it go in, otherwise I might regret not shooting it."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) April 10, 2022
That would also clear the way for Rust and Jason Zucker to play on Malkin’s line. With Rust at 58 points in 52 games this season, an actual point-producing winger for Evgeni Malkin is a rarity unseen since the Phil Kessel days and should serve as a boost.
The best thing of all, however, is just the options on the table. Rakell and Crosby hook up on some nice plays for some goals? Great. Crosby and Rust have years worth of chemistry and connection that also form a nice line? Perfect. No choice is a bad one right now for the coach, when he has wingers like this to choose from.