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March 24, 2019
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Changes Afoot




Evgeni Malkin
photo by Matthieu Masquelet

The Penguins are at their best when they're playing an aggressive, up-tempo game. They skate and forecheck to get the lead, and then they slap on the trap to choke out the third period. But for whatever reason, Therrien had his boys sitting back and trapping from the opening draw in Game One. The Penguins were basically playing to win a 1-0 game. That was unfortunate.

Pittsburgh isn't going to out-Detroit the Red Wings. Yeah, the Penguins are a great defensive team, but what makes them special is their speed and skill. It would be nice if they actually used them. They need to dump the puck, move their feet, and create chances with hard work. Once they get the opportunities, the skill will naturally take over.

The playoffs are all about adjustments, and Michel Therrien will be making a few for Game Two. He's going to juggle his lines, moving Ryan Malone to the top unit with Sidney Crosby and Marian Hossa. Max Talbot will replace Malone on the left side with Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora. Pascal Dupuis will drop to the third line alongside Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy.

"One thing that's important for us, with the adjustment we made, there's combination with the players," explained Therrien. "We want to keep those combinations. Like we're talking about Crosby, Hossa and Malkin, Sykora. And we like Staal and Kennedy together.

"So when you evaluate the other team, this is where you have to make some adjustment, we believe. Ryan Malone could be a good fit to play against their top line. With Talbot, I like his grit. I like his speed. He's a guy that likes to pursue the puck, to create turnovers. So I believe it could be a good fit."

I like the moves. Dupuis is a natural third-liner. The top unit still has more than enough speed with Cosby and Hossa, but Malone will bring a physical presence to challenge Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski.

Talbot needs more ice. He's an energetic chap, so he should bring passion to the second line. And Malkin could use a spark. He was dreadful in Game One, and he has just one goal and one assist in his last five games.

"First of all, we still have a lot of confidence in him," said Therrien of his Russian superstar. "He's a world-class player. He needs to stay focused. He needs to stay on top of his game. He needs to skate. He needs to battle. And if he's doing those things, good things can happen to him. But we do have a lot of confidence in him. He's going to bring his game where it's supposed to be."

Something is definitely going on with Geno. He hasn't been the same since Game One against Philly. Malkin took a ton of big hits in that series, including a colossal crunch from Mike Richards right before he scored with the ol' breakaway slap shot.

Before the Richards hit, Malkin was averaging five shots per game. Since the hit, he's averaging two shots. Geno was sick before the Flyer finale, but there's been no mention of any other physical woes. So he may still be under the weather. Or he could just need a kick in the pants.

"Well, a guy like Geno, the challenge that he got when Sid got hurt. . . I wanted to make sure that he was helping his linemates to play on top of their game," said Therrien. "And this is what good players are capable of doing. This is what guys like Mario Lemieux did in the past and guys like Wayne Gretzky did in the past, and did try to help him focusing on playing with his teammates.

"On the other hand, we put him in a situation to be a leader. He was a leader at that time. And I thought that he did a fantastic job when we lost Sid. Just reminding him this morning that I want him to be a leader again. And we need him. He's a big part of our success. And I want him to be a leader."

The Penguins will definitely have one more leader in the lineup in Game Two, as Gary Roberts will make his Stanley Cup Finals debut. Run! Save yourselves!

"He's going to bring physical presence," said Crosby. "Obviously his experience, too. But he's a guy that can go out there and really give you momentum with a big hit or creating that energy that you need sometimes. So I think when he's out there, every guy on the ice knows it. He's someone that's going to bring a lot of energy for us."

Roberts is slated for fourth-line duty with Adam Hall and Jarkko Ruutu. Big Georges Laraque will take the scratch. Having a goon in the lineup against the Red Wings is a waste. Georges challenged Darren McCarty in Game One, and McCarty wanted none of it. Hey, McCarty is old, but he's not stupid. Okay, well, he's not that stupid.

It might also be time for Therrien to mix up his defensive pairings. He put Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi together against the Rangers, but I never really liked them as a pair. Neither one can move the puck worth a damn.

The best thing about Pittsburgh's blue line is it's got three offensive guys in Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Whitney, and Kris Letang, and three defensive guys in Brooks Orpik, Gill, and Scuderi. So why have your two slowest, least-skilled defensemen together? And it's no coincidence that Gill and Scuderi were on the ice for both even-strength goals against.

Personally, I think their best pairs are Gonchar-Scuderi, Whitney-Orpik, and Gill-Letang. But considering Gonchar and Orpik have been together for so long now, at least go Whitney-Scuderi and Gill-Letang.

When Whitney and Letang are together, they're both so aware of their defensive shortcomings, it cripples their offensive game. When they're paired with strictly defensive guys, it allows them to concentrate on offense, maximizing everyone's potential. Let's make it happen.

Over on the other side, the Red Wings want to keep it steady as she goes. Don't expect to see Chris Chelios. And Johan Franzen still seems a game or two away, although he's getting closer.

"We haven't been able to find a doctor to keep him out," said Mike Babcock.  "So we're trying, though. He's going to practice again -- he practiced [Sunday].  He's going to practice again [Monday]. He's been cleared to do everything. So one of these days he'll get cleared to play."


Pavel Datsyuk
photo by Matthieu Masquelet

The one cool thing about Game One was watching the top two lines go head-to-head. It was Datsyuk-Zetterberg-Holmstrom against Crosby-Hossa-Dupuis most of the night. It was a pretty even match. While both lines produced chances, neither one cashed in at even-strength. Adding Malone to the mix will only heighten the game within the game.

While home ice allowed Babcock to dictate matchups, he wasn't surprised to see Therrien roll with the Crosby-Dasyuk duel.

"What are you going to do, tell Sid he's not playing?" said Babcock. "You play your players. I do the same thing. You gotta get your people on and off the ice. It's not like Crosby and his line and Malkin and Sid's line didn't have chances.

"If you go through the chances, for us we were outchanced in the first period. They had four power plays, and they outchanced us. They outshot us and outchanced us.  If we don't have some puck luck in front of our net. . . maybe they're up, and then the game's different."

Crosby, for one, relished the challenge. He wants to go against the best. And there's no reason for Therrien to avoid the matchup. If Detroit's best players can outplay Crosby, the Wings deserve to win the Cup.

"I wouldn't change anything, to be honest," said Crosby. "We had our chances, and we didn't put them in. It came down to execution. But it's pretty tight. It's playoff hockey, comes down to whether you put the puck into the net or you don't. I don't think they did a whole lot to shut us down completely. It was tight checking, and they got their chances. We got ours. And we'll continue to try to create things and battle."

Babcock definitely wants his troops to stay out of the box. The Penguins created plenty of offense on the power play, and the Detroit coach knows how dangerous they can be with the man-advantage.

"Now, the thing that stands out in my mind about their team is they have all the left hand shots on their first power play, lefty, lefty, lefty," said Babcock. "So there's a lot of one-time shots when they're on the offside. And they can all shoot it. And really shoot it. I mean Gonchar shoots a bomb. Malkin shoots a bomb. Crosby has a great release. And then with Malone, you have a good net front guy and a great low walk in Hossa. So to me they have all the ingredients of a real good power play. That's probably why they're leading the playoffs in power-play percentage."

Detroit appeared flawless in Game One, but the Wings know they'll need a better effort in Game Two if they expect similar results.

"From our perspective, we've got to tighten up," said Babcock. "We gave up too much on the penalty kill. We didn't think we got started on time. Just being nervous and not handling the puck like we're capable of handling it. And those are good players. And the one thing about good players is they're real competitive. If they don't like their game, their last game, they usually have a better game the next game."

Let's hope so.

(Sunshine) Detroit.

 



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