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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 Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Matt Luda
Matt Luda
3 years ago

Brassard, Kessel and Malkin have absolutely destroyed this team (-41 combined). Puck-handling and mental mistakes galore. And Kessel and Malkin don’t give a rat’s behind about defense. Sully has to split them up at ES and on the PP, something that should have been done weeks ago.

Zane Gearhart
Zane Gearhart
3 years ago
Reply to  Matt Luda

Sadly the 3 names you mentioned were supposed to be part of the strength to this team. It unfortunately hasnt been that way

Ronald
Ronald
3 years ago
Reply to  Matt Luda

Oh how yee forget when Malkin & Kessels line were lighting up the scoring. While Sid was trying to get his game going in the beginning of the year. Malkin will find his game if Sully will leave his line alone so they can get their rhythm back. So dont forget who was scoring at the beginning no one was saying drop Sid to 4th line take him off power play. Back off Gino will be fine how we forget he lead the team in scoring last year!!!!!!!

JICS
JICS
3 years ago
Reply to  Ronald

Sid didn’t score for ONLY the first seven games – not a good comparison!!!

Ricardo58
Ricardo58
3 years ago

It takes guts at times to be an effective and consistent leader. IMO, Sullivan needs to sit 71 from the 1st PP unit. Sullivan has said his greatest hammer to get the players attention is to reduce their ice time. I think Sully has it in him to make the decision. Currently, 71 can be a liability to the team at any point in the game. Maybe skate him with 2 defensive responsible wingers to minimize his gaffes as he tries to work out of his funk. Also, maybe 71 isn’t elite anymore? Still, very good. Just not at the… Read more »

Frank
Frank
3 years ago

It is easy to over react when things are not going well but you can only whistle by a graveyard so many times. The Penguins have not even come close to looking like a team that could win 4 Stanley Cup rounds all season. Maybe they squeeze out one round. With luck and breaks maybe two. Not a chance for three. Four belongs right there with other bed time stories. GMJR either has to make a headline grabbing deal if he wants to make a real run . . . or make a deal that begins to rebuild a crumbling… Read more »

Frank
Frank
3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Thanks for the note Dan. Of course I hope I am wrong. But those damn rose colored glasses are murder!

Dr Colgate
Dr Colgate
3 years ago

Gino will find his game when he realizes that the skating and effort that brought him greatness is missing from his play. It’s not lost. It’s just deeper down as we age. What feels like giving it 100% at 24, feels more like having to work at +150 at age 30. When he finds his heart to not allow being late to a play, his +/- will turn positive. One thing for sure…it’s not in his head, where he thinks it is. His issues are in his legs. It’s obvious to anyone watching the game, except someone in denial. If… Read more »

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