Penguins' Crosby, Malkin to play on same line

Playing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin together is Michel Therrien's nuclear option, the one he breaks out only in the most dire of circumstances.

He puts his two best players on the same line only when the Penguins are desperate for offense, usually because they're in imminent danger of losing a game.

That's not the case now. Not exactly, anyway.

The danger now is that if the Penguins (2-2-1) don't begin to generate some even-strength goals, they might lose lots of games.

They enter the game tonight against Toronto at 7:08 at Mellon Arena with just one five-on-five goal -- courtesy of fourth-line center Mike Zigomanis -- in their past four games, during which time they are 1-2-1.

So Therrien has opted to unite Crosby, Malkin and left winger Pascal Dupuis while reconfiguring the rest of his forward combinations in the process.

The other units during a workout yesterday at Southpointe were Ruslan Fedotenko-Jordan Staal-Petr Sykora, Miroslav Satan-Max Talbot-Tyler Kennedy and Paul Bissonnette-Bill Thomas-Eric Godard.

Zigomanis did not practice because of an unspecified injury but said he expects to be able to play tonight. He presumably would step back into the spot Thomas filled yesterday.

Malkin is the Penguins' leading scorer, with two goals and four assists in five games. Crosby doesn't have a goal yet but has set up four, while Dupuis, a blue-collar winger, got the winner in a 3-2 overtime victory against Philadelphia Tuesday but hasn't earned an assist.

Dupuis, though, is hardly the headliner for this group. Crosby and Malkin get top billing, along with increased pressure to be productive.

"We have to create things, for sure," Crosby said. "When we're put together, we have to make things happen."

Malkin endorsed the move. "I think it's a good line," he said. "Sid is a good player, a good passer." Therrien pointed out that it has yielded goals in the past.

"We did that last year -- putting those two together -- and it seems to work," he said.

The downside, of course, is that opponents can focus their defensive efforts on that line, deploying their checking line and top defensive pairing against the Crosby-Malkin tandem rather than having to choose one on which to focus.

Therrien acknowledged that it's extremely unlikely Crosby and Malkin will play together for an extended period.

"I'm not saying they're going to remain together for the rest of the season," he said. He tried to put an upbeat spin on other aspects of his line-juggling.

"It will give Jordan a chance to get back to his natural position," he said, "so there are a lot of positives about it."

If Therrien's switches work, the Penguins might well build a lead this evening. That hasn't been a problem so far this season, though, because the Penguins have been in front during four of their first five games.

The tough part has been making those leads stand up, as they've won just two of those four games and didn't get the winner until the final 25 seconds of overtime on both occasions.

"We have to do a better job [of protecting leads], but we went through the same thing last year," Crosby said.

Numerous factors, including a power play that sputtered before going 3 for 6 against Washington and a penchant for losing defensive-zone faceoffs at inopportune times, have contributed to the trouble the Penguins have had staying in front once they get there.

"It's a matter of knowing you can't let up," Crosby said. "Sometimes, it's easy to do that when you have the lead. We have to realize how to play with the lead."

That failing was apparent during the third period of their 4-3 loss to Washington Thursday, when the Penguins were outshot, 21-6, and outscored, 3-0. After the game, Therrien labeled the Penguins' performance during those final 20 minutes "unacceptable" and "immature," and he seemed only slightly less aggravated about it yesterday.

"We didn't pay attention to detail, and that was the result we got," he said. "You have to pay attention to detail, you have to remain focused. Because you have one or two bad shifts [doesn't mean] you have to change the game plan.

"You're allowed to have one bad shift. You can't have a bad game."

Dave Molinari can be reached at . First Published October 18, 2008 4:00 AM


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