Pittsburgh Penguins: Line Chemistry and Continuity

The Pittsburgh Penguins look like a team that is over thinking the game of hockey.

Of course, everyone is blaming the team’s failings on the return of Evgeni Malkin and the disruption of “team chemistry”. This is in no way the case as the issues that the Penguins faced in Game 2 were present in Game 1. Malkin can only make them better, but with coach Mike Sullivan being the biggest over thinker, things went from bad, to worse.

I have concerns about how Sullivan used Malkin, but let’s move forward and look at what the team can do differently with their lineup in Game 3.

The First Line

Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Patric Hornqvist

So before we get too deeply analytical, let’s just say as a forgone conclusion that Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist are on the top line. Chris Kunitz and Malkin both took regular shifts on Crosby’s left wing in Game 2 with mixed results. Geno ended up with a relative Corsi For % of -7.37, and zero shots on goal in 5-on-5 play. However, he does get a Mulligan considering that he hasn’t played a game in five weeks.

I have not been shy about my distaste for playing Malkin and Crosby together. They do not play poorly per se, but they do not have the impact that you would expect. Yes, looking solely at “fancy stats” proves me badly wrong, but there are times when even the most detailed statistics do not tell the whole story. Feel free to correct me in the comments section, but I cannot recall very many times when playing the two together directly impacted the outcome of a game. In fact, putting your two best players on the ice at the same time allows the other team to focus on them.

I fully support advanced statistics, but people should not rely on them as the sole barometer of a player’s performance. The same could be said for those who depend on the “eye test” and dismiss analytics as gibberish. Both have their place and should be used together to make an educated decision.

Now that we are past that, Chris Kunitz needs to be on Crosby’s wing. Not because he is the better player, but because it just makes better overall sense for the team. Am I opposed to an occasional mix up? No. Carl Hagelin, Conor Sheary, or even Malkin are good options when needed, and if Kunitz is being outplayed by another option, please, make the move.

The Second Line

Carl Hagelin – Nick Bonino (or Malkin) – Phil Kessel

The second line of Hagelin, Bonino, and Kessel was one of the best lines in the league for the last month of the regular season. But unless things change for the Penguins, I would not hesitate to move Malkin back into his pre-injury role. I would consider the early stages of Game 3 to be that last opportunity for the current trio to stay intact.

Hagelin has not exactly struck fear into the hearts of his former teammates, and while Bonino and Kessel have played well, I would like to see Malkin have the better set of wingers. The only true concern here is if Malkin’s elbow is up to the task of taking faceoffs. While we are experimenting, I don’t hate the idea of Malkin on Bonino’s left.

In my opinion, the future of the “HBK” could be in doubt.

The Third Line

Evgeni Malkin – Eric Fehr – Conor Sheary

From what it sounds like, the Penguins practice lines had Malkin centering Sheary and Fehr, which I have no problem with. But as I mentioned before, Malkin may have issues with faceoffs, so it makes sense to have Fehr in the center role.

In limited action, Sheary and Malkin had fairly decent possession numbers together. While not a long-term answer, I do like how these three would compliment each other’s game. Sheary could become a high-level player in the NHL. Why not get an early jump on it?

Now if Beau Bennett gets healthy again, I wouldn’t mind seeing him with Malkin.

The Fourth Line

Tom Kuhnhackl – Matt Cullen – Bryan Rust

I like this line in theory, but they have not exactly impressed thus far against the Rangers. Kuhnhackl’s relative Corsi For % is a dismal -14.29, with Cullen only slightly better at -11.24. Rust, who only played in one of the two playoff games with limited minutes, is in at -3.72.

I really want to like this line, rather the version of these players that we saw for most of the regular season. But like the rest of the team, they need to step it up.

The Penguins as a team have forgotten what made them the most feared organization heading into the playoffs. The coaching staff created the aforementioned lack of continuity. This is truly my first real criticism of Sullivan, even after the Matt Murray concussion debacle. But he is a smart man with smart players. They will come back in Game 3 refocused and motivated.

Just in case, he may want to do a Gordon Bombay rollerblading montage and talk to Hans the skate shop guy. It always works for me.

Until next time.