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Important Takeaways: DeSmith Earns a Few Smiles, Kapanen has Not

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Casey DeSmith

After head coach Mike Sullivan extracted Evgeni Malkin from Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen, the Pittsburgh Penguins wheels stopped spinning aimlessly and gained traction. The Penguins had 32 shots in the final two periods after just five in the first period.

But they still struggled to put the puck in the net at even strength with just one EV goal. The Detroit Red Wings also scored one at even strength as the teams traded power-play goals. On Friday night, Detroit won in the shootout 3-2 at PPG Paints Arena.

In the second period, the Penguins put 17 shots on Detroit goalie Calvin Pickard, and most arrived after Sullivan put his lines in the blender.

“It’s not a message to anybody. We’re trying to find combinations that are going to help us win. And so if the coaching staff feels as though it’s stale and we’re not getting production and we’re not getting any sort of traction from some of the lines, then we’re going to be proactive and we’re going to move people around,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to give guys an opportunity to take advantage of a situation and that’s what we’ve done for most of this year.”

Kasperi Kapanen, whose game is increasingly lost, dropped to the fourth line with Brian Boyle and Danton Heinen. Evan Rodrigues, who began the game with Jeff Carter on the third line, elevated to the second line with Malkin and Brock McGinn.

Zach Aston-Reese was added to the Carter line on the left side.

McGinn-Malkin-Rodrigues

Aston-Reese–Carter–Dominik Simon

Heinen-Boyle-Kapanen

“I think we knew we needed to take it another step in the second period there. I thought we did that. I thought we controlled the play and got to the front of the net, which we needed to do to try to stop the goaltender,” Guentzel said. “So yeah, sometimes line changes do that just kind of gets different guys going, and I thought we played much better after that.”

There is a running theme among the takeaways and the statistics. For the great difference in the eye test, the Pittsburgh Penguins managed precious few scoring chances, even after the line switches, and the NaturalStatTrick.com heat map showed only light net-front activity.

Takeaway #1: Kapanen is Lost

Energy, pace, and intent all picked immediately. It was as if they flipped a switch. The Penguin lineup suddenly worked with Kapanen and Malkin separated.

Malkin and Kapanen should not play together again until Kapanen finds his game or something close to it. The result led one to conclude that Kapanen hindered Malkin’s game, not vice versa.

However, the Penguins’ fourth line with Kapanen and Brian Boyle was pretty good–not great–but pretty good. It’s not ideal to pay a fourth-liner $3.2 million, nor is it ideal for such a talented player to get fourth-line minutes, but it was a start.

Takeaway #2: Rodrigues-Malkin

Rodrigues can be a playmaker, but he, too, needs a jumpstart. His otherworldly production for most of the first half of the season went ice cold after the holiday break.

He was floundering beside Jeff Carter. It was a bad match for a few weeks. On Friday night, Carter and Rodrigues were outshot 6-1, but McGinn-Malkin-Rodrigues outshot the Red Wings 8-0. They outchanced Detroit 3-0.

Again, it was good, not great. The trio had only one high-danger chance.

Takeaway #3: Casey DeSmith may have played the most crucial game of his career.

DeSmith has not yet played a playoff game or faced a meaningful game in which his performance could make or break a season. Friday night was as close to that moment as he’s faced with the Pittsburgh Penguins

If DeSmith struggled, GM Ron Hextall would have had little choice but to use the next two weeks to find a backup goalie. Starter Tristan Jarry cannot, and should not, continue on the near 80% of games-played pace. Only Nashville Predators goalie Juuse Saros has played more.

Last week, Sullivan took the wrap for putting DeSmith into game action too soon, and that as much as playing for his NHL career may have launched Casey DeSmith, who seized the moment.

“He talked to me after the Columbus game and just kind of explained that he put it on himself that he put me in a tough spot. Obviously, as an athlete, you know it’s not his fault. I know that,” DeSmith admitted. “But yeah, it means a lot to know that he has my back and that he’s looking out for–obviously the team’s best interests–but also mine.”

DeSmith stopped 30 of 32, including a “wow” save on Dylan Larkin in overtime. DeSmith stopped a two-on-one by throwing himself to his left and snaring Larkin’s seemingly perfect top-shelf one-timer.

“It was Geno who was the d-man, and I don’t think he has much experience playing two-on-one. So I just tried to force the guy to make a pass and throw everything I could over there. And, you know, sometimes it goes right in your glove, and it looks good,” DeSmith laughed.

He didn’t get the win, but he looked good. He earned a few smiles and a laugh.

DeSmith also abandoned the pads he used in Columbus for all new gear on Friday night.

“I needed out of those pads. Just not very good juju with those. So I like the white. I think they look a little bit bigger, and just new pads in general kind of make you feel bigger, too. So I’m happy to be in ’em.”

Is DeSmith developing a yinzer accent? Leaving out the “to be” is a gateway drug to slippy, gumbands, and clearing out Giant Eagles of all toiler paper and milk when it might snow.

Side note: There was much social media blame for Malkin in overtime. Re-read DeSmith’s quote. Malkin was the player back on defense–that’s a good thing. There aren’t many centers in the NHL who know how to be the lone defender on a two-on-one. Don’t get caught up in the Malkin angst and look for blame on every play.

Takeaway #4: That was Rock Bottom

Guentzel-Crosby-Bryan Rust is the constant, the Alpha and Omega of the Penguins offense. For the last few games, the line has driven play and production. On both Thursday and Friday night, Sidney Crosby and co. provided more chances than the rest of the team combined. 

The disparity was even more pronounced against Detroit. The Crosby line generated 11 scoring chances. The rest of the team earned four. Crosby’s line had five high-danger scoring chances. The rest of the team…one.

Only six high-danger chances against lowly Detroit is the starting point for a turnaround and discussion.

The Pittsburgh Penguins hit rock bottom in the first period. They hope.

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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.

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Wasnt
10 months ago

Pens really miss Blueggy bad. I liked the Geno, EROD and Ginner line maybe more time together and there might be some good chemistry.
Felt sorry for Desmith he deserved the win. I’ve noticed teams are making sure Pens don’t get that fast attack right at the beginning of the game anymore.

Jack McCrory
Jack McCrory
10 months ago

Malkin‘s return has thrown the chemistry of this team off. It has in previous years and it has again this year. That’s not to say that his play has been bad it’s just to demonstrate that the chemistry around him that he brings to the ice is the problem.

Big B
Big B
10 months ago
Reply to  Jack McCrory

Thank You Jack get ready for the anger puting words in your mouth from all the haters here who can’t abide an honest assessment of Geno’s play, or the teams cohesion.The D-Play has been horrible since his return.Not blaming it all on Malkin but he is a good part of it with horrible turn overs.

Marc Badger
Marc Badger
10 months ago

Kapanen lost in Sully’s philosophy…or just lost? Aside from some pretty breakout passes from Geno, he appears slow out there; fumbling the puck, perimeter shots, and not strong on the wall.

Would he emerge as the Pens top trade candidate in March? I imagine his value is down, so perhaps a change of scenery type of trade. Man, that preseason tear of his was such a tease.

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
10 months ago
Reply to  Marc Badger

I think you have to try and move him. Going to need the cap space.

Uros
Uros
10 months ago

Well, I’m slowly losing all hope regarding Kapanen. But hey, I’ve lost all hope for Casey and look at that now. Yeah, it’s just one game, but wow! Maybe Kapanen catches some Pens magic along the way and starts playing. Who knows? And Heinen also seems a bit lost. On 3 empty net chances he hit the post 2 times and missed the entire net once. But it’s not just that. He seems a shadow of a player we were so happy with at the start of the season. About the side note, I’m with you 100%. When Crosby got… Read more »

Joanne
Joanne
10 months ago
Reply to  Uros

Hope you are right about Kappy catching some Pens magic. He just seems like a great guy with a great personality.
Fingers crossed for Kappy that he turns it around.

Dave Heyl
Dave Heyl
10 months ago

Play the young guys Bjorkquist & Zohrna to get some energy. Mistakes will be made but Kapanen is done, too many time in the dog house!

Frank
Frank
10 months ago

I was happy to see DeSmith turn that performance in. The panic that was set off, suggesting that he had to be dumped and a new back-up added was/is a bit premature. He has always been a capable back-up. For one reason or another his game came off of the rails. But barring extraordinary talent (which he does not have) just about every goaltender goes though stretches like that. Aside from those streaks the simple fact is that the back up options that are genuinely available and for which Hextall would surrender assets . .. and were materially better than… Read more »

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
10 months ago
Reply to  Frank

About not fitting in, ditto that for Zucker. It isn’t just Kapanen. You are right, some players just don’t mesh well with a team for whatever reason