Did you like the changes the Pittsburgh Penguins made to their lineup, line combinations and defensive pairings over the weekend? Hate them? Intrigued by them?
Well, you could well get a longer look at the same configurations from Sunday’s 4-2 win over Carolina, at least for Tuesday’s game at Nashville. At practice Monday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, the team used the same looks from Sunday. As in:
Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Bryan Rust
Danton Heinen-Evgeni Malkin-Evan Rodrigues
Radim Zohorna-Jeff Carter-Kasperi Kapanen
Brian Boyle-Teddy Blueger-Zach Aston-Reese
Mike Matheson-Kris Letang
Brian Dumoulin-John Marino
Mark Friedman-Chad Ruhwedel
That left winger Dominik Simon and defenseman Marcus Pettersson as the odd men out after they were healthy scratches on Sunday.
Pettersson had been a second-pairing regular in a group that had had a lot of stability in recent weeks. A trigger was Matheson coming back from injury Friday against Vegas, with Dumoulin out sick. That gave Mark Friedman a chance to play, and the Penguins liked what they saw of Friedman enough to keep him in the lineup and sit Pettersson when Dumoulin came back Sunday. They also opted to keep Matheson with Letang, relagating Dumoulin, Letang;s longtime defense partner, to the second pairing.
Kapenen’s struggles (finally) led to him being a healthy scratch Friday, but winger Brock McGinn got a hand or wrist injury that game and is out on a week-to-week basis. So Kapenan got back in for Sunday, albeit on the third line rather than the second line alongside Malkin.
Also of note, prospects Valtteri Puustinen and Zohorna got looks, with Puustinen playing Friday and Zohorna getting called up and playing Sunday.
Those are the nuts and bolts, but what about the implications and messages?
Those moves would seem to loom large with the NHL’s trade deadline a week away, March 21, with the stretch drive about to begin and playoff positioning and matchups to push for.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has consistently said he and his staff look at lineups and combinations that offer balance and a competitive edge.
Yet, these moves seem to be more eye-popping this time of year. Or maybe that’s just an optical illusion.
PHN asked Sullivan on Monday whether the lineup discussions and decisions are different now than in, say, November.
“As far as priorities are concerned, no,” he said. “We believe balance is an important element and having a competitive team regardless of who our opponent is.”
But surely the players – particularly those being put in different roles – feel an extra level of responsibility or even pressure now than they might have early in the season when moves could be a general sorting out of things rather than gearing up for the stretch run and postseason.
Matheson, like Sullivan, said not necessarily. That’s because the pressure is always there, he said.
“That’s probably the sense all the time,” Matheson said. “We’re a tight-knit group and get along really well and support each other and encourage each other.
“At the same time, it’s a business. If you’re not doing your job, there’s definitely somebody ready to take it from you. It’s kind of two-fold, where you’re using that as motivation and then leaning on each other as teammates at the same time.
“I’d say that regardless of whether it’s at the beginning of the year or the end of the year, it’s always competitive.”
That doesn’t mean you’re off base to take more notice these sorts of changes or assign more importance to them in March.
Many of us do. Wondering what the 2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins have in November seems different from wondering what they will look like in the spring.
Here’s Zohorna after practice: