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Day 1: Penguins Lines, Zucker with Malkin ‘a Different Style ‘

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NHL Return Pittsburgh Penguins Practice Facility UPMC Lemieux Complex

Day 1 of the Phase 3 training camp in pursuit of the Stanley Cup at the end of Phase 4 rainbow concluded on Monday. The Pittsburgh Penguins lines were mostly predictable, even as nine players were held out for precautionary reasons after secondary exposure to COVID-19.

On the ice, the effect of the exposure was minimal to the actual lineup. The only missing regular was Patric Hornqvist as the other players were the AHL and depth player contingents battling for a spot on the 31-player roster.

Sam Lafferty and Evan Rodrigues took Hornqvist’s spot on the third-line RW.

The full Penguins line combinations:

Guentzel-Crosby-Sheary

Zucker-Malkin-Rust

Marleau-McCann-Lafferty/Rodrigues

Aston-Reese–Blueger–Tanev

Dumoulin-Letang

Petterson-Marino

Johnson-Schultz

Murray

Jarry

Zucker-Malkin

As PHN reported several times through the pandemic pause, coaches indeed paired Jake Guentzel with Sidney Crosby, and Jason Zucker played on Evgeni Malkin’s left.

Before the break, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan pressed Zucker to use his speed and take defenders wide. Zucker had early success with Crosby but cooled closer to the coronavirus pause.

The reasons for pairing Guentzel and Crosby despite the torrid run Malkin and Guentzel had at mid-season are many, at least in terms of playoff points. When Crosby and Guentzel are paired together, especially in the playoffs, points flow like water. In just four years in the league, Guentzel has played 41 playoff games and has scored 43 points (24g, 19a).

So, Zucker will go with Malkin.

“It’s a work in progress, for sure. He’s an amazing player, … He’s a little bit of different style than playing with Sid,” Zucker said Monday. “It’s definitely a positive thing. He’s not hard to play with.”

No, Malkin is not hard to pair and has had more success with more varied linemates than Crosby, who has been reunited with not only Guentzel but with Conor Sheary, as well.

Crosby helped Sheary to a blistering pace in Sheary’s first full NHL season. Sheary scored 53 points in 61 games before signing a three-year, $9 million contract. Sheary’s production fell off, and he was hard on himself in the following seasons. He admitted as much to PHN.

However, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford brought Sheary with Evan Rodrigues in exchange for Dominik Kahun. For Sheary, it’s a shot at the Stanley Cup he wasn’t going to get in Buffalo.

For Crosby, it’s a reunion with familiar players.

“We’re pretty familiar with each other. We had some fun together,” Crosby said. “We’re trying to prepare as best as we can. We have a short period of time here to get ready, so that should help moving forward.”

Pittsburgh Penguins Day 1 Analysis

The Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Zucker for his speed and scoring touch. The Penguins need became urgent after Guentzel suffered what should have been a season-ending shoulder injury, but the COVID-19 pause gave everyone a second chance.

“I thought Jake looked terrific today. He’s been on the ice for quite a while now. He’s worked extremely hard to get to this point,” Sullivan said.” He looks strong. We think Sid and Jake have a chemistry that’s really productive for us.”

Instead of having one, the Penguins have both. For those who think Zucker should be with Crosby and Guentzel with Malkin, it’s hard to disagree. Conversely, the Penguins coaches see the shortcoming on Crosby’s right-wing and feel they need Guentzel on that line. Zucker isn’t the scorer to Guentzel’s level, and Sheary has been a light touch since his 53 point outburst three years ago.

Zucker with Malkin should provide a wicked fast second line with a hefty scoring pop while preserving the point-per-game Guentzel-Crosby magic.

COVID-19

The Penguins isolated nine players who had secondary exposure to COVID-19. Hornqvist was the only regular. Aside from potential health issues, the isolation hurt the young players fighting for a spot on the 24-team tournament roster. Sam Poulin and Pierre-Olivier Joseph were caught in the exposure, and they will be behind.

In fact, if they isolate for too long, they could be left off the roster. Defenseman Kevin Czuczman was on the extra pairing with Chad Ruhwedel, as Zach Trotman is unavailable for the NHL return because of a preexisting health condition, and Juuso Riikola was also isolated as one of the nine players.

It would be a shame if secondary exposure denied Joseph and Poulin a chance to be part of the NHL playoffs. PHN thinks Poulin could be valuable.

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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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