“It’s hard to tell with one 20 minute period,” Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan cautioned.
It was just one period. One day after losing to the Calgary Flames and being passed by the Carolina Hurricanes for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Penguins squandered a two-goal lead to the lowly New York Rangers.
The storm clouds were rolling in from the horizon. The newly configured lines showed a little bit of spark but were not able to sustain offensive pressure. The Penguins were tied with New York after 40 minutes and began the third period with the daunting task of killing the majority of Sidney Crosby’s four-minute high sticking penalty.
The Penguins killed the penalty. The crowd roared its approval. Then Sullivan shuffled the lines, and suddenly everything went right for the Penguins.
And everything was right for the Penguins.
For the moment and hopefully beyond, Sullivan slipped Nick Bjugstad to third line center. He slid Phil Kessel back to his natural home on the right wing with Evgeni Malkin. Emerging puck hound and scoring thumper Zach Aston-Reese was elevated to the puck retrieval spot on Malkin’s left wing. Jared McCann was shifted to third line LW with Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist. Teddy Blueger went back to playing with Matt Cullen on the Penguins fourth line.
And Evgeni Malkin in beast mode. Everything and everyone in their natural spot. Pittsburgh Hockey Now had to ask if that period was enough to nudge Sullivan towards a more permanent arrangement.
“It’s hard to tell with one 20 minute period, but it’s certainly something that is a real option for us,” Sullivan said. “(Bjugstad) has the ability to play center and wing.”
Perhaps some film study Sunday night reinforced what everyone saw; Bjugstad is the Penguins third line center. Kessel was lost on the left wing. Blueger benefits from a guiding hand like Cullen, with whom Blueger scored two of his three goals and three of his four points. And Aston-Reese not only acquitted himself well with Malkin, but he also created offense for Malkin to finish.
According to Sullivan, Bjugstad to third line center was the “Plan B, if we didn’t see the development of (the Malkin) line.”
Plan B, Plan 9 From Outer Space, a backup plan, or accident. It didn’t matter. The Penguins got it right. Imagine the angst and turmoil in the fanbase and perhaps the organization if the Penguins slipped further behind Carolina. Instead, the Penguins leapfrogged Carolina back into the playoff seeds.
“We think Zach is getting better and better. He’s getting better with each game played since he’s come off his injury. And it ended up working out for the (Malkin) line,” Sullivan said. “I thought they had a real good third period.”
As a team, the Penguins owned the third period. They took 68 percent of the shots, had 73 percent of the scoring chances and 80 percent of the high-danger chances. New York scored a couple of garbage time goals which altered the scoreboard but there was little doubt about the result.
For comparison, the Kessel-Malkin-Bjugstad line had a 37 percent shot rate in the first two periods, which mirrored their malaise from Saturday against Calgary, too. The Blueger-McCann-Hornqvist line was at 35 percent. All stats according to NaturalStatTrick.com
After the changes, the Malkin line had a 100 percent shot domination. They fired seven shots on goal in the third period but didn’t allow a single shot. And they scored two goals including Malkin’s jaw-dropping backhand spinner which brought the house down.
The new Bjugstad line got to a 50 percent Corsi rank in nearly three minutes of ice time (they attempted only one shot but allowed only one shot attempt). We’ll call the line a work in progress, but there was finally progress.
The season is still hanging in the balance. It was “just” one period but in those 20 minutes, the Penguins swung the arrow to point up. We’ve seen what can happen to this team when the arrow is pointing down.
Don’t be surprised to see the Penguins go on another explosive run. Too many players had reason to feel good and they all did so in their natural spots.
Aston-Reese may not be a permanent fixture beside Malkin. He may come and go as his game ebbs and flows. Tanner Pearson or Dominik Simon may slot in, occasionally. However, Aston-Reese is surging above both of those players and has a legitimate chance to fill the void on Malkin’s left when Carl Hagelin was dealt to LA.
And Evgeni Malkin shattered a season of fighting himself and instead tortured the opponents. Future opponents beware.
Those 20 minutes looked to be the kindling which this team has been desperately seeking and may well have saved the season.