BOSTON — What do you get when a team plays a lot of games in not a lot of days against opponents that otherwise may not interest them? Before a week’s vacation, you get the Pittsburgh Penguins winless in four straight and listless.
That’s not the best joke setup you’ve ever heard, but it was the lifeless Penguins slinking into the All-Star break. Head coach Mike Sullivan pumped some energy into the locker room on Monday with a crisp practice at the Boston Bruins facility on the outskirts of Boston.
The Penguins’ playoff fate is all but determined. They have a 16 point lead on the Detroit Red Wings, the first team outside the Eastern Conference seedings.
Yeah, the playoffs are essentially guaranteed, but that’s the only sure bet remaining for the Penguins, which are in the middle of a dogfight atop the Metro Division with the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, and Washington Capitals.
“My hope is that we’ve all had an opportunity to get away from the game for a little bit to recharge our batteries–and attack this second half of the season with a whole lot of enthusiasm and a whole lot of energy that I think our team is capable of playing with,” Sullivan said.
You can get the full update on the Penguins’ health and Evgeni Malkin’s prognosis from the late afternoon Pittsburgh Penguins practice here.
The breaking news on Monday was Malkin’s positive COVID test. As they were for the first 34 games of the season, the Penguins will be without Malkin for the next two games. The Penguins will again be a man, or three, down on Tuesday against the Boston Bruins. Some teams are diminished without their best lineup. The Penguins have been at their best.
Perhaps that, too, will amp the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“When we do (play with energy), we’re at our best. And that is going to be one of the objectives moving forward–is to try to continue to play with the pace and the energy and the enthusiasm that we need to to put our very best game on the ice.”
Rodrigues sounds like he prefers center. The Penguins’ Swiss Army Knife will play center in Malkin’s absence. After a blistering start with 30 points in 32 games (15-15-30), Rodrigues has two points and no goals in his last 14 games.
Malkin’s absence will again open a spot for Rodrigues at center, where he began the season.
“I think playing center helps at a time. I’ve been playing wing a lot lately and, you know, sometimes that’s a little more static, more up and down the wing,” Rodrigues said. “And you know, you don’t get the puck in the middle of the ice as much. “I’ll be playing center here tomorrow, getting some touches early, getting the puck in the middle of the rink will help…”
Rodrigues showed a flash or two in the last couple of Penguins games before the break. Those little toe-drags to the center of the ice, followed by the surprisingly heavy wrist shot, reappeared after a few week hiatus. However, Rodrigues still didn’t find the score sheet and played on the third line beside Jeff Carter instead of the second line with Evgeni Malkin.
You may say that’s a better assignment, but the way a third line deploys is far different and has far more defensive responsibility than a second line.
“We have success when we find a role four lines over and take it to teams. And I think, lately, we’ve been almost relying on our power play a little bit too much and almost waiting for a power play to happen,” Rodrigues said. “And you know, sometimes it’s hard when you know you don’t get out there for a while, but you just got to kind of stick with it, stay confident, stay consistent.”
Rodrigues hasn’t been a Penguins player for long, but that seems like astute analysis that has been an issue for several years, going back to the Phil Kessel days of 2018. I don’t recall a Penguins player voicing that opinion, but it’s spot-on correct.
With Malkin back in the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, Rodrigues as “demoted” to the second power-play unit, which in Penguins land often means only 20 seconds of power-play time after the first unit soaks up the first 90 or more seconds.
“When Geno’s in our lineup, (Rodrigues) is not necessarily on our first power play. Our first power play gets the lion’s share of the minutes. And so that’s really probably the only aspect of E-Rod’s game when Geno’s in the lineup that it may affect,” Sullivan said. “Otherwise, we’ve moved E-Rod all around our lineup. In the first half of the season, he’s thrived, no matter where we put him. If we put him on the wing, he’s done really well. If we put him at center, he’s done really well. We really liked him in the middle.”
And so Rodrigues will get a shot to begin the second half, just as he began the first–in the middle. And we’ll see if he can duplicate the first-half production, too.