The Pittsburgh Penguins coaches have been trying to find line combinations which worked. They have tried Dominik Simon in the top-six, and with all centers. They have been pushing newly acquired Nick Bjugstad as a power forward right winger.
And Sunday, they turned to the junior power forward on the team to drive more possession and hopefully offense: Zach Aston-Reese.
Aston-Reese has been posting dominant puck numbers since he returned from a broken hand, last week. His Corsi against the Calgary Flames hovered around 60 percent (which means when he was on the ice the Penguins had 60 percent of the shot attempts). He created turnovers and set up linemates for glorious scoring chances.
Sunday, the Penguins turned to “Plan B,” or if we’re being cute, Plan Z in their 6-5 win over the New York Rangers.
“We just didn’t think (Malkin)’s line was getting consistent zone time, so we had talked about a potential ‘Plan B’ if we didn’t see any development of that line, then maybe we would try (Bjugstad) at the third line center role,” Sullivan said.
First player to get the chance with Malkin was not Simon who was a healthy scratch Saturday, but Aston-Reese.
“We think Zach is playing extremely well. He’s getting better and better with each game played,” Sullivan said. And he’s right.
Aston-Reese plowed forward on the Penguins second line which created space for Malkin to score one goal from the side of the net. How does a player as prominent as Malkin get open on the doorstep? When defenders are needed to stop Aston-Reese charging low.
Midway through the third period, Aston-Reese again initiated the bullrush low. This time, Evgeni Malkin put on a show for everyone including Aston-Reese. Malkin took Aston-Reese’s pass with his back to the net and shielding the puck from the defender. With a quick move, Malkin spun around the defender and whistled a backhander over New York Rangers goalie Alexandar Georgiev.
“I’m pretty pumped. When the play the top 100 goals of the season, I’ll be in the highlight reel,” Aston-Reese laughed.
Aston-Reese also explained how he knew to pass it to Malkin. Let’s just say Malkin doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.
“He can be loud when he wants the puck, which is a good thing,” deadpanned the new Malkin sidecar. “I heard him coming down late and just put it in the spot for him. You guys saw the finish. He took care of the rest.”
Suddenly months of Malkin’s frustration, injuries and suspension seem a memory, even if it was only days ago. Malkin looked like the star the Penguins need not only to make a Stanley Cup run but just to make the playoffs.
And the Penguins may have hit paydirt with a line shuffle, too.