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Gajtka: Playoffs Near, So Time to Stop Shuffling Lines

After five months of fluctuation, Sullivan and his staff can afford to shift into a steadier gear.



Michael Miller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Mike Sullivan has never been averse to changing things on the fly if he deems it necessary.

However, with 16 games to go before the playoffs, it’s time for the Penguins to settle down.

The trade deadline has passed, with the uncertainty that precedes it gone, too. The goal of this season was always to get into the tournament and give themselves a shot at a Stanley Cup three-peat. With an eight-point cushion between them and the first team out of the Eastern Conference playoff field, a 12th consecutive playoff berth is essentially under lock and key.

Starting with Monday’s matchup against the Flames, now is the time to give Derick Brassard and Phil Kessel a run of games together, to figure out if Chad Ruhwedel is a fit in the bottom defense pairing, to see who Sidney Crosby‘s wingmen will be for Game 1 of the postseason.

The only way to do that is to stop tinkering and give all these aspects a legitimate trial.

“We got Derick,” Olli Määttä told Pittsburgh Hockey Now last week. “This is the group. Now, we’ve just got to make a push. We’re in the last games before the playoffs.”

As Määttä made sure to mention, this is no time to get complacent and cruise into the playoffs. But after getting back to dominating the puck against the Islanders on Saturday, the Penguins (37-25-4) are closer to claiming the Metropolitan Division’s top spot than they are to the playoff-qualification danger zone.

Ending a bothersome three-game losing streak makes it easier to take a wider view. On the merits of a 18-7-1 surge, the defending champs have put themselves in a spot where they don’t have to urgently search for a patch-up job if a game isn’t going well from the start.

In this season more than the previous two, Sullivan has felt compelled to switch his forward lines quite regularly. His players bear the brunt of the blame for that, as their five-on-five play ranged from uninspiring to downright awful in the first three months of 2017-18. Since the new year, NHL stints for Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese mixed up the line combos, too.

On defense, the three-year contract given to Matt Hunwick last summer pushed him into the lineup when most players wouldn’t have gotten the benefit of the doubt. With Ian Cole sent away, the No. 6 spot on the blue line is open, but as Dan Kingerski wrote Sunday, Hunwick’s body of work this season doesn’t inspire confidence as the high-stakes games approach.

So, with Sullivan’s lineup shuffles proving effective against the last-place Islanders, there’s no reason to change in the coming days and weeks.

Allow Brassard and Kessel to build more familiarity and see if the Penguins can carry the league’s deadliest third line into the playoffs. Let Jake Guentzel rediscover the connection with Crosby that proved so deadly last spring. See if Conor Sheary can give Riley Sheahan some playmaking support on the fourth line. Find out if Dominik Simon can add more to the effort than Carter Rowney.

For that matter, let Ruhwedel get his feet under him and see if his simple style might be better suited for what the Penguins need as opposed to Hunwick’s more assertive approach. As Ruhwedel said Saturday, following his first game since Dec. 27, it’s tough to be poised when your mind isn’t accustomed to game speed.

“Had a feeling (I’d play) and it came true,” Ruhwedel said, smiling. “Initially, your adrenaline gets going just naturally.”

There’s plenty of excitement ahead, to the Penguins’ credit. They’ve reestablished themselves as title contenders — maybe even favorites — with their impressive 2018 push. Another three-game losing streak would hurt, no doubt, but the time has come to look ahead as much as is responsible.

To that point, a consistent rhythm can best be achieved with a consistent lineup. After five months of fluctuation, much of it justifiable, Sullivan and his staff can afford to shift into a steadier gear.