As the 56-game 2020-21 NHL season winds to a close, the Pittsburgh Penguins have clinched their 15th consecutive postseason appearance. Fifteen straight years reaching the playoffs is no small feat, as it leads all active postseason streaks across North American sports leagues. The MLS’s Seattle Sounders are the next closest organization with 12 straight visits to the postseason.
In terms of the NHL, the Penguins’ streak stands far ahead of the runners up. The Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators are both sitting in second riding six consecutive years in the playoffs. 15 years also moves the Pens to 10th in NHL history for longest postseason appearance streak.
Something that makes this years’ playoff berth even more spectacular is the number of injuries that plagued them all season. Key players have been missing games all season long and it was the Penguins’ next-man-up mentality that aided their way to a winning season. As the season winds down, there has been positive news on the injury front.
Players are slowly returning to the team and only making the team stronger in time for the playoffs. While it’s good players are making their returns, fans have been questioning what certain parts of the lineup should look like when everyone is healthy.
Here is how the Penguins’ lines should shake out heading into the 2021 NHL Playoffs.
Forward Line 1
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
One of the best lines in the game, all three of Sidney Crosby (20), Bryan Rust (20), and Jake Guentzel (22) are touting 20 or more goals this season — something no other line in the NHL is doing right now. Despite a slow last three games combining for only three points, they are bound to turn it up a notch down the stretch and into the postseason.
This line is more than just goal scoring, however, as these three are some of the best playmakers on the Penguins. Crosby’s 36 assists top the team and Guentzel’s 31 is five shy of a career high. If you have seen them play together, you can see what kind of chemistry they have formed. Not too many lines around the league can pass the puck the way they do.
In a season filled with injuries yet again, this trio has been relatively lucky. Guentzel and Rust are the only two in Pittsburgh to not miss a game, while Crosby only missed one due to COVID protocol.
Forward Line 2
Evan Rodrigues – Evgeni Malkin – Kasperi Kapanen
This line depends on both Evgeni Malkin’s eventual return and hopes that Evan Rodrigues isn’t hurt after taking a shot to the foot in the playoff clinching game in Washington. With all that being said, everyone knows how skilled this line can be. Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen have formed an incredible bond that won’t soon be split up and Rodrigues’ speed opens up more opportunities for his European linemates.
Rodrigues has turned into a very useful tool for the Penguins’ offense this season. He’s seen time on all four lines and has been relatively consistent everywhere he’s been put. Seven goals and seven assists for 14 points and possibly playing on the second line is far exceeding the expectations he had at the beginning of the year.
Forward Line 3
Jared McCann – Jeff Carter – Jason Zucker
These three have formed a good bond on the ice since the organization acquired Jeff Carter and it might be hard to split the three of them up. For Carter and Jason Zucker, the third line is the perfect spot. It’s a trio of guys who love to shoot the puck, and acting as the team’s pseudo second line, they have been solid.
The new arrival in Carter has already collected five points with the Penguins and Jared McCann, who just won’t stop scoring goals, should pair well. Zucker is having a down year by his standards, so a lower role might be beneficial to improving his game. Do they reach HBK levels of chemistry and success? Maybe not, but this could be a very good scoring threat heading into the postseason.
Forward Line 4
Zach Aston-Reese – Teddy Blueger – Brandon Tanev
One of the best defensive lines in hockey last season should be fully reunited following Brandon Tanev’s return to the lineup. Not only does this group still play an incredible defensive game, but all three have paced for career highs in offensive output.
Remember how good of a shutdown line they were last year? Now they’ve added a depth scoring threat. Having depth scoring is a key to any Stanley Cup contender, and if Aston-Reese, Blueger, and Tanev can keep up their pace, it will go a long way.
Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang
Mike Matheson – Cody Ceci
Marcus Pettersson – John Marino
Once the defense regained full health, these combinations haven’t changed, and that’s the right move. The group just needs to improve the way they play in front of their own net. Kris Letang, despite the critics, is still the team’s No. 1 defenseman and Brian Dumoulin has fully returned to top-line form since returning from injury. His six-game point streak should speak for itself.
The combo of Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci may have made fans quiver in fear at the start of the season, but they have both exceeded expectations. Ceci especially, who people pegged as just another Jack Johnson. Needless to say, he has been far from that and has had himself a huge improvement in the proper role.
The two youngest defensemen on the team in John Marino and Marcus Pettersson are riding the third pairing and that’s a great spot for them. It’s not that they are bad. To be frank, they’re a huge step forward from Johnson and Justin Schultz from last year, but they are just young players who are still learning and improving their game.
First Men Up
Frederick Gaudreau, Chad Ruhwedel
Injuries happen, and for the Penguins they need reliable players that can fill in in a moments notice if a guy goes down. That’s when they turn to Frederick Gaudreau for a forward fill-in, and Chad Ruhwedel on the blue line.
Starting the season on the taxi squad, Gaudreau was given his chance to prove he is NHL caliber and he passed the audition with flying colors. Despite what the numbers may say, he showed he can be a better and more consistent option as a depth forward over Mark Jankowski. If someone goes down with an injury, expect Gaudreau to be the first man up.
As for Ruhwedel, it’s the same old song and dance; he doesn’t have to play much, but you know you have a stout shutdown option when he’s in the lineup. Only appearing in 16 games this season, he has accounted for two assists and a plus-3 rating.
Power-Play Unit 1
A real hot-button issue among Penguins fans has been how the power-play units will look when Malkin returns to the ice. Well, in the grand scheme of things, there is no wrong answer to where he should be put. He either returns to the first unit and contributes the way he has for 15 years, or drops to the second and quarterbacks.
Odds are, Malkin stays with the top unit and there are two very good reasons for that decision. One, he’s a veteran star player who has been an anchor on the Penguins’ top unit since the start of his career in 2006. Two, since that time he has racked up 153 career power-play goals, second in franchise history.
It’s also possible to put Malkin back in his normal spot and keep this year’s leader in power-play goals (McCann) right where he is.
Power-Play Unit 2
Just move Rust to the second unit. Maybe this is a simple way of looking at things, but a strong scoring threat on the second unit only makes that group better. Why not trot out two powerful scoring lines rather than just one with a man advantage?
The Penguins’ power-play percentage has risen to 10th in the league thanks to the work of McCann and company, but a hungry Malkin on top should add to the fire power. Rust becomes another threat with Carter and Zucker rather than Rodrigues, who has been filling that role.
For the first time in what seems like forever, the goalie situation is simple. Tristan Jarry starts and Casey DeSmith backs up. We don’t need to dive any deeper than that.
If the Penguins are able to remain healthy and roll all four lines with success, they will be a real threat in the playoffs. A deep run to the Cup is possible again this year, and for the first time since 2017, it feels real. Beyond analytics or eye tests, there seems to be something special with this team. They refuse to quit on a game and are playing for each other. They have been a fun team to watch all season, and they seem to be having just as much fun on the ice.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.