When Pittsburgh Penguins star center Evgeni Malkin returns to the lineup after missing weeks and counting due to injury, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan will have an interesting decision. It’s a good problem, but one which will be more hotly debated as Malkin’s return draws closer.
Evgeni Malkin was injured on March 16. Jared McCann returned to the lineup on March 20. He joined the Penguins’ top power-play on March 25.
Jared McCann has scored five power-play goals since March 25.
The Penguins’ power play has climbed from the mid-20s to 11th after scoring two power-play goals in four chances against the New Jersey Devils on Friday night.
McCann is making head coach Mike Sullivan’s future decision more difficult with each game the Penguins power play converts. On Friday, the Penguins’ power play was probably the difference between winning and losing. Without the pair of power-play goals, the Penguins’ circumstances would have been much different in the 6-4 win over New Jersey.
But Sullivan hedged when discussing McCann or Malkin on the top power-play unit.
“Regardless of who’s been on (PP1) whether Geno’s there or Jared’s there, when it’s clicking, there’s movement,” Sulivan said. “That’s that’s the common denominator … it’s just a matter of executing and being on the same page.”
To be fair, Evgeni Malkin is a generation talent, despite what message boards and a small minority of fans say. Malkin was on the point and in the high zone when the Penguins set a franchise record for efficiency two seasons ago.
It’s not as if Malkin is unworthy or untalented, though brace yourself for an avalanche of anti-Malkin sentiment instead of the more appropriate pro-McCann sentiment. Such is our world, eh?
Sullivan certainly offered some pro-McCann sentiments on Friday night.
“Jared brings a certain dimension. I think that helps. He can score goals. He can shoot. He’s really good in particular coming off that strong side flank, just getting off the wall inside the dots,” Sullivan said. “He’s got a great shot, and he’s got a deceptive shot … And I think he just has a knack to score goals.”
Movement was the big wrinkle that assistant coach Todd Reirden was to instill into the Penguins power play. Early in the season, the players moved. The puck sometimes moved. But rarely the movements met.
Things improved in fits and starts.
On Feb. 1, Jason Zucker offered this:
“It’s definitely a work in progress. We’re not happy with it. We’re not happy with our special teams, and we’ve got to keep fixing it,” Zucker said. “…The simple answer is to shoot pucks, but we’ve got to make sure we’re making adjustments,” Zucker continued. “And find ways to get those good shots on net.”
Back then, the Pittsburgh Penguins were passing up more shots than a nun on spring break.
“We’ve got to free up our minds a little bit, and the best way to do that … is just to shoot the puck and create opportunity off of that,” Sullivan said on Feb. 1.
Fast forward two months and a week. McCann and the Penguins power play are winning games. On Thursday night, McCann executed the simple wheel, snipe, celly play the Penguins work on in practice. McCann circled from the midwall to the point, received the pass, pushed directly forward into the high slot, and shot low.
The play isn’t designed to score on the initial shot but create loose pucks, rebounds, or a deflection. McCann’s shot, deceptive as it is, slipped through for the tally.
Keep your eyes on the top of the screen. That’s McCann who circles to the top.
That isn’t a play Malkin performs with aplomb.
“(Friday, McCann’s goal) was a different way. It was a rebound from the pocket area. And that’s just an indication of the movement where he’s not always on the flank that we’re not stuck in positions per se where we’re trying to get some motion,” Sullivan said. “The puck has to move, but people have to move also. That’s the big aspect of the deception associated with the power play … he’s been doing a good job.
It wasn’t the resounding endorsement of McCann you were probably hoping for. Sullivan has a little tell. Unprompted, he will bring up other players when he’s trying to quell controversy. When asked about McCann, he brought up Malkin. It’s a little nod to say this is the reality.
Pittsburgh Penguins Power Play Alternative Possibility?
There is a possibility that would include both Malkin and McCann on the Penguins’ top power play, but it would require removing Jake Guentzel, who plays down low, or the only right-handed forward, Bryan Rust.
Rust’s right-handed stick allows him to play the pinwheel in the slot. Rust can shoot, dish, or retrieve. And, being a righty means both sides of the ice are open. Those are the advantages of keeping Rust.
Guentzel is a more natural scorer and has done an adequate job at the net.
Those are happy decisions and problems for Sullivan, even if the decisions don’t make the fans so happy.