Pittsburgh Penguins Coach Mike Johnston Doesn’t Fear The Matchup Game


Dec 15, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Johnston (right) looks on against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We interrupt mumps mania to bring you some honest-to-God hockey talk.

Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Johnston said something interesting – and potentially promising – in his post-game press conference after Monday’s 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

When asked about the continued development of center Brandon Sutter, Johnston made mention that the coaching staff decided to pursue a “hard matchup” for Sutter’s line against the Lightning’s top unit, led by super sniper Steven Stamkos.

In other words, with the Penguins in possession of the last change on home ice, Sutter would be on the ice whenever Stamkos was.

Novice Pens fans could be excused for thinking this was a novel approach, as former Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma was famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) for simply “rolling” his forward lines, home or away. From Bylsma’s perspective, he was forcing the opponent to adjust to the Penguins, instead of vice versa.

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However, there is a difference between being proactive and just being stubborn. In some cases, the Pens’ elite offensive talent was able to overcome the blunt-force approach employed by Bylsma. In other cases, the Pittsburgh Porsche ran into a brick wall, with predictable results.

Johnston didn’t have much to work with up front Monday, so offense wasn’t his major concern. With only Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist left among the opening-night top six forwards, Johnston’s primary concern was defending Tampa Bay’s potent attack.

He did just that with the help of Sutter, who had Nick Spaling and Hornqvist on his wings for most of the evening. According to WAR-on-ice.com, Stamkos and his linemates Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan combined for a minus-4 in even-strength shot differential. For one of the most dangerous trios in the NHL, that’s practically invisible.

While Sutter, Hornqvist and Spaling were a combined minus-6 in that same category, also known as Corsi, their main directive was to limit the Stamkos line. Johnston’s post-game comments indicated as much, although Sutter’s latest shorthanded goal was a nice bonus.

One can only draw so many conclusions from 60 minutes of hockey, but Johnston’s simple willingness to match lines is a refreshing change from years past. With the absences of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Beau Bennett depleting the Pens’ raw scoring ability, Monday was a prime opportunity to use Sutter in a true shutdown role.

Flexibility was reportedly one of the attributes that got Johnston hired by general manager Jim Rutherford. Monday night’s matchup game was the latest evidence that there’s definitely a different man in charge.