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Kingerski: The Penguins Have a Hole in the Middle

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have a serious and unrelenting problem. They have a hole in the middle of the lineup which doesn’t seem to be getting smaller. Head coach Mike Sullivan knows it, too. His challenge to the team to dedicate themselves to a style of play have been aimed as much at his team’s heart as it has been squarely aimed at his middle six forwards.

Last place teams dominate the Penguins. The team is 1-7-1 against the bottom of the divisions. They just don’t seem to care enough to pound on the lesser teams. But that issue won’t matter in the playoffs.

Good teams can also dominate the Penguins because the Penguins middle lines can’t get it together. Not only are the lines not impactful, but they can also feed the other team momentum. Evgeni Malkin is going through a crisis of confidence unlike any he has experienced in his career.

“We’d like (Malkin) to have more of a positive impact on the game. He’s such a talented player and an accomplished player,” said Sullivan. “Part of my responsibility as his coach and as a staff, we’re trying to help Geno [sic] through this process to help him capture his very best game.”

Malkin’s commitment to the team and organization have never been questioned, at least by those who know.

However, the Penguins third line centered by Derick Brassard has become wasted minutes. The line not only lacks offensive push but is–by the eye test and the advanced numbers–in the defensive zone about 60 percent of the time.

Harsh but true.

The advanced stats are no longer necessary. Most nights, Brassard’s crew, whoever it includes is on the wrong side of the puck. It’s as perplexing as it is unmistakable and apparently irreversible. Nearly 50 games into the season, with a bevy of line combinations, the Penguins cannot get the third line cow to produce milk.

Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Dominik Simon, Tanner Pearson, and Bryan Rust have all taken their shot on the line. Nothing works.

The same list also applies to the Penguins second line with Evgeni Malkin. Though the Malkin line has clicked and worked in short sparks; much like a wonky cell phone charger, the line will have a burst of life but the coaches have to keep jiggling the cord to keep it going.

And let’s skip past the Malkin-Kessel pairing debate. There are only so many electrons available for the internet.

For Malkin, the issues are unique. He is fighting the puck. His swagger and confidence have been erased as he tries in vain to stickhandle around defenders who are no longer suckers for his quick hands. Teams are merely getting back to take the rush away from Malkin, correctly betting he will not make the simple plays which later open ice for his talents.

Malkin knows what he must do but it is a gargantuan adjustment for one of the great players of this generation to adjust to the new realities of the next generation. Even bad defensemen are now mobile and active. Malkin’s points-per-game is a nice consolation prize for the struggles, as well. He has posted 53 points (14g, 39a) in 49 games and most of those points (35) are at even strength

The Penguins remain a team with bookend lines. The first line with Sidney Crosby has performed exceptionally well. Not only is Sidney Crosby on pace for over 100 points but Jake Guentzel is on pace for 40 goals. Their play backs up the numbers. The Penguins fourth line centered by Matt Cullen with trusty sidekick Riley Sheahan has also been a reliable contributor both offensively and defensively.

In a comment on the state of the team, PHN’s analysis of defenseman Jack Johnson published Sunday showed the fourth line had significantly outscored the Penguins third line with Johnson on the ice, despite significantly less ice time.

In addition, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has frequently deployed the fourth line in an old-school shutdown role against opponents top lines. The Penguins have not utilized a fourth line like that in recent memory. Or distant memory.

Former Penguins coach Michel Therrien told PHN Sunday that Malkin would be fine, “he will answer the bell,” when it rings for the second half.

The mighty Penguins are fighting for a playoff spot and moving forward with on two of four cylinders. Its fortunate for them, the top line is one of the best in the NHL and even in his struggles, Malkin able to put ink on the score sheet.

But something has to change. The Penguins have to fill that void in the middle of their lineup.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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