Although the Pittsburgh Penguins are a respectable 3-2-1 since the Olympic break, they haven’t exactly been controlling games since getting back into the regular-season routine.
Monday’s 3-2 win in Washington was another example of that trend, as seven combined points from first-liners Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Lee Stempniak covered up for the Capitals’ distinct edge in puck possession and shot attempts.
Pittsburgh’s recent victories in Anaheim and Nashville have played out in similar fashion, although the shootout win over the Ducks was much more of an escape than the regulation triumph against the Predators. Still, the fact remains that the Pens haven’t truly outplayed a team since a 5-1 win at Buffalo on Feb. 5.
This seven-game stretch of chasing the puck had its roots in early December, when rampant injuries led to the recall of several AHL players to fill gaps. The Penguins kept reeling off wins for a while after that – with some help from good fortune - but the team that consistently fired 55 to 60 percent of all shots taken in October and November is gone.
As mentioned above, poor health has been a key factor in the Pens’ possession downturn. Pascal Dupuis‘ absence has hurt the top line’s even-strength effectiveness, while the play-driving skills of defensemen Paul Martin and Kris Letang have been badly missed.
Dan Bylsma told the media Monday that the Penguins’ coaching staff will use the next 10 games or so to determine roles for the upcoming playoffs. He hinted at using newly-acquired Marcel Goc and erstwhile third-line anchor Brandon Sutter in tandem as hybrid center/wings in certain situations.
Maximizing Goc and Stempniak will be critical to deepening a roster depleted by injuries. It appears Chris Conner will be out with a new foot injury, but Beau Bennett is on track for a return next week. We saw a little of Jussi Jokinen on the third line Monday night, so does that mean Bennett could be slotted to skate on Evgeni Malkin‘s left side?
That might be a tough fit considering Bennett is a natural right wing and James Neal isn’t going anywhere, but the important thing is that Bylsma is about to have more personnel options. That’s a good sign for any team, especially one that’s a work in progress like the Penguins.
Tonight’s Game: Penguins (43-17-4, 90 points – 1st Metropolitan) vs. Capitals (30-26-10, 70 points – 5th Metro) at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh
Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: Root Sports Pittsburgh (local), NBC Sports Network (national)
Radio: 105.9 The X
Mt. Lebanon native Patrick Wey was called up by Washington on Tuesday. The 22-year-old defenseman has played three games for the Caps this season and 33 between AHL Hersey and ECHL Reading. Wey was drafted in the fourth round five years ago and played four years at Boston College.