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‘Higher Expectations’: Sullivan Hints at Changes for Penguins’ Bottom-6

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Pittsburgh Penguins: Mike Sullivan, Mike Vellucci, Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen, Brock McGinn

ELMONT — Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan didn’t tip-toe or tap dance around the subject early Tuesday afternoon. When asked for his assessment of the Penguins’ third line, with Brock McGinn, Jeff Carter, and Kasperi Kapanen, he gave it.

The level of forthcomingness from Sullivan should also indicate the level of the problem.

The Penguins’ line has been on the wrong end of the ice far too often. As previously noted, they have earned just 30 percent of the scoring chances when they are on the ice over the last eight games. It’s been tough.

“I think they’ve had ups and downs,” said Sullivan. “There have been some nights they’ve been pretty good. On other nights, we have higher expectations. We’re trying to figure out our bottom-six right now, based on the health of our group.”

Jeff Carter has one point (a goal) in his last eight games. Kapanen has three assists, but no goals. McGinn has been the steady presence on the line, outscoring Carter and Kapanen combined.

McGinn has four points (3-1-4) in his last eight games and six points (4-2-6) in his last 10 since Dec. 1.

The line also has been significantly outscored. Their season totals are five goals for, and 11 against. The numbers in their past eight games are one goal-for and three against.

“I do think we take a good amount of D-zone faceoffs. So getting out of there and taking care of that end of the rink (is important),” said Kapanen. “Obviously, I’d like to think that I’ve got some talent, and (McGinn) does, and so does Cartsy. I mean, he has 1,200 games and 800 points or whatever … So if we can just get more offense and get some goals, that would be a bonus.”

For the record, Carter has 821 points, but has remained one assist shy of 400 since notching one helper vs. St. Louis on Dec. 3.

Kasperi Kapanen has been an enigma. Talented. Fast. Potentially a power forward. But his production has been meager for most of the past season and a half. He has 13 points (5-8-13) in 24 games, but four of his five goals and five points of his points came during a two-game stretch, including a hat trick earlier this month.

Otherwise, he has eight points in the other 22 games. For a fourth-liner playing well, those might be good statistics. But for a first-round pick with top-six talent, those can be underwhelming.

“I would anticipate us probably tinkering with those lines a little bit to see if we can come up with a little bit more balance,” Sullivan concluded.

Fourth-line winger Ryan Poehling remains out, as does Josh Archibald. Last Thursday, Sullivan shortened the bench against the Carolina Hurricanes. Fourth-liners Drew O’Connor and Danton Heinen played sparingly, but Kapanen showed a burst of energy and speed. He remained in the forwards’ rotation and was a noticeable presence.

The Penguins lost, 4-3, but Kapanen has shown well, in intermittent spurts. Consistency would go a long way to solving the Penguins’ issues.

While the fourth line has two injuries, the third line has none. So, the extent to which Sullivan may tinker with the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins lines could become a storyline.

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.