The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin had 42 goals and 98 points in the 2017-18 season. He’s a dominant second-line center and a key component of the team’s power play, where he racked up 38 points over this season. The injury that kept him out of the last two postseason games has been felt keenly.
Malkin’s absence tests the limits of the Penguins’ center depth. When he’s missing from the lineup, the second line isn’t the problem, although it’s less dominant. Rather, the issues exposed by the injury are most visible on the fourth line, which becomes a liability when fourth-line center Riley Sheahan moves up to slot into Malkin’s spot on the second.
This iteration of the fourth line— centered by Carter Rowney instead of Sheahan, and flanked by Tom Kuhnhackl and Zach Aston-Reese— has now played two games in two different series. In Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers, the line was buried. But things have grown worse against more difficult matchups in the second-round series against the Washington Capitals. Without Sheahan, the fourth line has become a liability with limited ice time and very few scoring opportunities.
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Fourth Line Possession Time
If the fourth line was buried in possession against the Flyers— they posted only a 16% Corsi-For percentage (CF%) in Game 6 of Round 1— they have been swamped by the Capitals. In the seven games they’ve played in these playoffs, the Penguins have, on average, controlled possession with an overall CF% of over 50% at even strength when this fourth line isn’t on the ice. With this combination on, however, the team has been dominated. In the first two games played together, the fourth line earned a CF% of only 7.62%. Throughout those games, the combination of Rowney, Aston-Reese and Kuhnhackl allowed four shots and twelve shot attempts against, while only managing one shot attempt in return.
Things improved for the fourth line in the Penguins’ Game 2 loss to the Capitals. The line took four shots and only allowed one against. But it looked like they might already nonetheless have lost head coach Mike Sullivan’s trust, because they were barely being deployed. Aston-Reese, after averaging around 13 minutes per game for most of the first round, has been averaging seven with the new line. In the first period of Game 2, he saw less than one minute on the ice. Overall, the line saw under four minutes together. This results in what might be overuse of the Penguins’ top lines: Crosby saw double shift after double shift in Game 2, when he played over 23 minutes. (During the regular season, he averages around 21.)
This is a marked change from the fourth line the Penguins used for the first five games of the playoffs, where Sheahan centered Kuhnhackl and Aston-Reese. Although that line didn’t control possession when they were on the ice, they almost managed to even out their shot attempts, with 12 for versus 13 against over those first few games. That fourth line didn’t dominate possession, but it did manage to generate some offense for the Penguins, which is something the team hasn’t regularly seen from this Malkin-less lineup.
Malkin’s Pending Return
Malkin has been listed as “day-to-day”, which is a term Sullivan generally uses to describe all players during the playoffs. But unlike the other day-to-day case, Carl Hagelin, Malkin traveled with the team to Washington before Game 1.
Evgeni Malkin taking the ice for morning skate with the team. pic.twitter.com/6FeKVcqfXS
— Jonathan Bombulie (@BombulieTrib) April 26, 2018
Malkin participated in the Penguins’ morning skate for Game 1, then rejoined practice in a full-contact jersey in Saturday’s practice. Although he didn’t play in Game 2, Sullivan described his absence as “just part of the process.”
#Pens coach Sullivan said Malkin did not have a setback. "Just part of the process." -MC
— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) April 29, 2018
The theoretical return of Malkin to the lineup will mean that the team no longer has to ice the fourth line that’s been giving them so much trouble offensively. With the return of Sheahan to the bottom six, the team could expect to start getting some scoring chances out of their fourth line in addition to the top three and not need to depend so heavily on their top scorers to carry the play.
The Penguins managed to win a game with a fourth line that didn’t give them much of anything in the way of offensive momentum. If they’re getting scoring chances from all four lines and letting their top line stay more rested, the team has a better chance of taking a more commanding hold of play going into Game 3.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.