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.
“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.