Other than their time on the power play, center Evgeni Malkin and winger Jake Guentzel really haven’t spent much time on the ice together for the Pittsburgh Penguins. That could be changing.
The new top line at the team’s practice Thursday in Newark, N.J., had Malkin centering Guentzel and Bryan Rust. It’s possible that combination will be used Friday when the Penguins play the Devils in New Jersey.
Of course, Guentzel has been nearly linked at the hip to top-line center Sidney Crosby as Mike Sullivan, like a lot of coaches, looks more for strong pairings than for full three-player lines that have great chemistry. But now Crosby is going to be out until perhaps Christmas or New Year’s. He had surgery earlier Thursday to repair a core muscle injury. The timeline for recovery is roughly six weeks.
Malkin said Guentzel “is a smart player. He wants the puck in the offensive zone. I’ll try to give him (the puck as) many times as I can. I know he’s trying (to get) open, in nice position.
“We don’t play together most of the time, but I know his game. I see how he plays with Sid. He needs just a moment to score. … We need to be leaders on the ice for sure.”
Guentzel, who scored 40 goals last season and leads the team with eight goals through 18 games this time around, said something similar to Malkin as far as them being linemates.
“He’s a really skilled player, and you just want to give him the puck as much as you can,” Guentzel said. “He can do special things with it. Not much changes from my end. I’m just trying to get open for him.”
While those two wrestle over who is going to set up who, Rust would seem capable of also being productive on that line. In just seven games after the start to his season was delayed by injury, he has five goals and seven points in seven games.
“I think we try to have a next-man-up mentality,” Rust said. “Sid’s a world-class player. He brings a lot of special things.
Still, it will be a little foreign, especially for Guentzel after he has been used nearly extensively as Crosby’s winger.
“This is the first time I’ve spent when you know you’re without him for a while,” he said.
Malkin, who has two goals, seven points in seven games after missing time because of an injury, is usually described as being the team’s second-line center because any line with Crosby is considered the top line by default, accepts some added responsibility while Crosby is out.
“I understand. I try to do my best,” Malkin said. “I try to (show) leadership on ice, in the locker room, too, do my best. I understand coach will give me more (ice) time to play.”
Malkin pointed to overtime Tuesday – the first game Crosby missed — when he didn’t get back defensively on the play when the New York Rangers scored the winning goal as an area where he could step up.
“I should play better for sure. Everyone’s looking to me right now,” Malkin said. “I trying to (show) leadership, to play smart. It’s not the first time I’ve played without Sid. I know it’s not easy, but I’m ready.”
Defenseman Kris Letang and winger Patric Hornqvist remain out because of lower-body injuries and did not practice, although Sullivan said the two “are making progress.”
Crosby, the team captain who leads the Penguins with 17 points, had been playing all season with the injury called a sports hernia.
“I’m not surprised,” Sullivan said of that level of perseverance. “He’s a real tough kid and he’s got a passion for the game. He plays through a lot. Always has, in my experience in coaching him here.”
There’s nothing new in describing Crosby as the heart and conscience of the Penguins, probably the most respected presence in the locker room. Sullivan said no one player will fill that void.
“I don’t think it’s any one particular guy; I think it’s everybody,” the coach said. “We have a lot of leadership in this group. There’s no question when you lose a guy like Sid, he’s not easy to replace in all those capacities. He brings so much to the table for our team. But we do have capable guys, and we’re just going to have to make sure that we stay on task and we work together to try to get results.”
That doesn’t mean the players are brushing off Crosby’s absence.
“It’s not easy,” said Malkin. “He’s the leader. He’s the captain. It’s really sad news for us. (But) the season just started. We hope he is back after six weeks and he’ll be strong.
“We have a great group here. Everyone needs to work harder every shift.”
According to reports from practice, the personnel looked like this:
Jake Guentzel-Evgeni Malkin-Bryan Rust
Alex Galchenyuk-Nick Bjugstad-Sam Lafferty
Dominik Kahun-Jared McCann-Dominik Simon
Zach Aston-Reese/Teddy Blueger-Brandon Tanev
Brian Dumoulin-John Marino
Marcus Pettersson-Justin Schultz
Jack Johnson-Juuso Riikola
Power play: Evgeni Malkin, Justin Schultz, Jake Guentzel, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad