CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa — The Pittsburgh Penguins have lost two in a row since they defeated the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning then the lowly Ottawa Senators last Wednesday and Friday.
Head coach Mike Sullivan will have more than a few decisions to make soon when the Penguins have several players get healthy including forwards Evgeni Malkin, Zach Aston-Reese and defenseman Justin Schultz.
According to Schultz, he will accompany the team on the upcoming road trip. And Sullivan said “everyone” will be on the trip.
Wednesday at practice before the Penguins departed for the vitamin D boost of sunny Florida which has thus far agreed with recently-traded Penguins center Derick Brassard, Sullivan mixed his defense pairings and moved Nick Bjugstad to Sidney Crosby’s right wing, for a little while.
“We’ve had stable defense pairs and fairly stable line combinations for a significant amount of games. And we’re 4-6 in our last 10,” Sullivan deadpanned. “Sometimes, there’s that fine line between riding through it with defense pairs and line combinations or trying to affect a little bit of change or urgency.”
One of the changes Sullivan made was the breakup of the Penguins top pairing. Brian Dumoulin and Jack Johnson skated together. Johnson and his partner Marcus Pettersson were part of the crew which was pinned into the Penguins zone for an extended period Wednesday night before Carolina scored their second goal.
“I know this group is capable of more. Our expectation is higher and we’ll continue to find ways to be proactive to try to get this team playing at the level we think it’s capable of on a consistent basis,” Sullivan said.
Penguins effort and consistency have been an issue this season — Read PHN’s column this morning on the matter.
Earlier in Sullivan’s post-practice scrum, Pittsburgh Hockey Now pushed Sullivan on the consistency issue and if there is an inference that some players are not fully investing, consistently.
“It takes the whole group, day in and day out to have success. And everybody has to buy in,” Sullivan said.
It should be noted, Sullivan has occasionally used practices to mix and match lines only to revert to original or staid configurations at game-time. So, recently acquired Nick Bjugstad may or may not be on Sidney Crosby’s wing tomorrow night.
“It’s something we’ve discussed. He’s played more wing than center in the last couple of years,” said Sullivan. “With (Malkin) out, it makes it a little more difficult but that’s not to say we can’t make that decision.”
“We have enough center icemen in the lineup that we can try different things if we so choose.”
The line with Tanner Pearson, Bjugstad and Phil Kessel were held without a scoring chance Tuesday night.
PHN asked Bjugstad if the statistics were misleading?
“No, it felt like (a rough night). It felt like we were in our d-zone quite a bit. I felt we could have done a better job of supporting the D a little bit,” Bjugstad said. “It was one of those nights, it felt like we were in the defensive zone the whole time.”
And so we will see if Sullivan chooses to inject more urgency into the Penguins and elevate Bjugstad to Crosby’s line, or separate Johnson and Pettersson. There could be a lot of changes as Matt Murray is also being evaluated for an injury.