The Pittsburgh Penguins saw their regular season come to a close Saturday afternoon, but before they enter the post-season there are some questions left in the air. Not only do the Penguins have to wait until Sunday night to find out who they will be playing, but it is also unclear who will be playing for them.
Second-line center Evgeni Malkin (upper-body), defenseman Olli Maatta (lower-body), winger Bryan Rust (lower-body) and starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion) have all been absent for the last stretch of the regular season. Winger Beau Bennett sat the last two games because of his recurring shoulder injury and back-up goaltender Matt Murray left Saturday’s game with a possible concussion after Philadelphia Flyer’s forward Brayden Schenn bumped into his head.
Despite the injuries, the Penguins won 14 of their last 16 games (captain Sidney Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang sat in Saturday’s loss against the Flyers) to end the season and seem to be firing on all cylinders. Their success begs the question of where the injured players fit in on a healthy roster.
With Maatta, the answer seems obvious. He will slide back onto the top-paring with Letang, enabling the tandem of Trevor Daley and Brian Dumoulin to reunite. Head coach Mike Sullivan has shown a preference for the pairing of Ian Cole and Justin Schultz over that of Derrick Pouliot and Ben Lovejoy, making the latter likely scratches upon Maatta’s return.
Likewise, the Pittsburgh’s goalie situation is clear. If Fleury is healthy, he will start. If Fleury is not ready and Murray is healthy, he will lead the Penguins out in Game 1 at least. However, if both goaltenders are out with concussions, it will be Jeff Zatkoff taking the net.
The forwards are where things become complicated. Prior to his injury, Malkin was on a line with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel. Nick Bonino has filled in at center in his absence. During the 15 games Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel has been together, they have combined for 32 points. With the chemistry that line has shown, it does not make sense to break it up, leaving Malkin a man without a country.
If Malkin returns in the first round, it is unlikely that he will be at 100%. So while the current second line should not be touched, Malkin may not be able to play at a high enough level to elevate bottom-six wingers. With that said, there are still some options to consider.
Rookie Conor Sheary and Bennett have seen some shifts over the past few weeks with Crosby. Both Sheary and Bennett have shown skill and performed well in their opportunities with the captain. The skill provided from the pairing may work with Malkin, who had shown chemistry with Bennett in the past.
Along those same lines, Malkin may work on a line with Eric Fehr and one of Bennett or Sheary if the team would prefer a defensive presence in that grouping.
However, the above options are contingent upon the health of Rust. If Rust and Malkin both play that will most-likely push one of Bennett or Sheary out of the lineup, provided that Sullivan does not sit Fehr, who has struggled lately, instead.
As for Rust, while he may be an option for Malkin’s line, he should be reunited with his previous linemates Tom Kuhnhackl and Matt Cullen. The trio was exactly what one would want out of a bottom-six playoff line – speed, tenacity and secondary scoring.
That leaves one final option for Malkin – Crosby’s left wing. The idea of ‘Malkin to wing’ has been tried in the past without much success, but it may make sense this time around. Malkin appears to be dealing with a wrist injury, which may cause problems with faceoffs. Plus, after a lengthy absence, the lesser responsibility on wing may help ease him back into the game.
Malkin isn’t the only one who would benefit from playing on the first line. While Crosby is still in the midst of an eight-game point streak, he has slowed down from the torrid pace he was on. Also, neither Patric Hornqvist or Chris Kunitz are particularly great playmakers, so when playoff teams focus on Crosby, it will be hard for either to open up space. Malkin would take some attention away from Crosby and both would benefit from the mere presence of the other on the ice.
If the Penguins are able to ice a full roster in the first round, in order to maximize the strengths and chemistry of their players, they may be best served rolling lines of Malkin-Crosby-Hornqvist, Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel, Kuhnackl-Cullen-Rust and Kunitz-Fehr-Bennett/Sheary. However, it remains to be seen what Sullivan is leaning towards.
The Penguins will find out who their first round opponent is at the conclusion of the New York Islanders game Sunday night and should have updates on all of their injured players within the next few days.