Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin joined on Penguins' No. 1 line
April 26, 2014 11:37 PM
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby checks the Blue Jackets' Jack Johnson into the glass in the second period of Game 5 Saturday night at Consol Energy Center.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It was just before Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets that Penguins forwards Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin found out they would be playing together, forming a new look for the Penguins' top line.
Crosby figured it might be a short-term arrangement.
Turns out, the revamped line combinations lasted the full game, a 3-1 win Saturday night at Consol Energy Center that left the Penguins up, 3-2, in the teams' first-round series.
Kunitz played in his customary left-wing spot alongside Crosby at center, with Malkin on the right.
"They wanted to be together," coach Dan Bylsma said specifically of Crosby and Malkin. "They wanted to go after it. We had a lot of opportunities to do that, and did."
Although the three didn't generate a five-on-five goal, they set the tone for perhaps the Penguins' strongest game of the series.
Kunitz led the game with seven shots, Crosby -- who had 12 shots over the first four games of the series -- had six, and Malkin had two.
Crosby also launched the puck five times and missed the net. The most noticeable of those came with 1:38 left in regulation when he took aim at an empty net with a wrist shot after Columbus pulled goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
Crosby, who has a 10-game playoff goal drought dating to last season, was able to poke some fun at himself about that last miss.
"I guess I didn't want that one," he said, smiling. "It's not like it's been that long, right? Not as easy as it looks, I guess."
The only goal generated by those three came from Kunitz, on a rebound that forged a 1-1 tie in the second period, although that was on a power play. Kunitz added an assist when Kris Letang, after Crosby's miss, scored into an empty net.
Crosby got an assist on Kunitz's goal, his fifth point of the series. All of those points have come on assists. It's the same with Malkin, who has four assists this series but a nine-game postseason goal drought.
Jussi Jokinen, usually Malkin's left winger, scored the Penguins' second goal.
Bylsma stuck with his conventional second line to open the game -- Malkin centering Jokinen and right winger James Neal.
Almost immediately after that, the lines took on their true form for the game, including Crosby and Malkin playing with Crosby's regular left winger, Kunitz.
"I thought it went pretty good," Crosby said. "I thought we generated some good chances. I didn't expect it to be as much as it was. It was pretty regular.
"That being said, when everybody's playing well you don't want to change too much. That's a credit to everyone. We all played a pretty strong game and generated a lot of chances."
It's not unusual for Bylsma to put Crosby and Malkin together in spots, often when he's hoping for an offensive spark. Rarely does that configuration last for a full game, or for a stretch of games.
"We went into the game with a good idea that we were going to see that on numerous occasions," Bylsma said of the Kunitz-Crosby-Malkin line.
"It probably happened a little bit more than we initially planned, but I liked it."
One of the downsides to using the two stars together is that it separates Malkin and Neal. Those two have strong and well-chronicled chemistry. Neal had one shot and no points.
The rest of the lines looked like this: Brandon Sutter centering Jokinen and Neal; Joe Vitale centering Beau Bennett and Lee Stempniak; and Marcel Goc centering Tanner Glass and Craig Adams.
Sutter assisted on the winning goal, scored by Jokinen on a line change, with Stempniak on the ice to take the initial shot on the play.
"I thought Brandon Sutter playing between Jussi and [Neal], he was real strong in this game," Bylsma said.
It was made possible by the return of Goc, the strong play of Vitale, and, most of all, the decision to play Crosby and Malkin together.
Whether the Penguins stick with that look for Game 6 Monday at Columbus -- where as the road team they won't have advantage in line matchups -- remains to be seen.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.
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