Penguins Drop Two Straight; Looking for Healthy Returns to Provide Consistency

The Penguins have now dropped two straight and are just 5-5 in their last ten games. Their offense has been struggling as of late and the defense has found little consistency following the injury to Rob Scuderi. So the question is, what can the Penguins do find success?

On the Defensive Side – With Rob Scuderi out of the lineup, the Penguins have been forced to alter their defensive pairings. Unfortunately, now Paul Martin is considered day to day and will most likely miss his second straight game on Wednesday against the Philadelphia Flyers. With all of that in mind, the Penguins do not have too many options other than to alter their pairings.

The first Penguins pairing should consist of Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. Although just a rookie; Maatta has had excellent streaks of play where he appears to be a legitimate shut down defender. While he is not overly physical, Maatta uses good body positioning and stick work to keep forwards from gaining any leverage. Combine his steady defensive play and good skating with the offensive ability and great skating of Kris Letang and the Penguins have a balanced line that is capable of playing the oppositions second and third units.

The second Penguins pairing should be that of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. The transition game of Niskanen and the physical presence of Orpik would be a similar pairing to that of Orpik and the injured Paul Martin. Niskanen is a good skater who also possesses a strong shot from the point. He is undersized, but still capable in the defensive zone.

The final pairing for the Penguins should be that of Deryk Engelland and Robert Bortuzzo. Engelland is a bruiser down low and drops the gloves often. Bortuzzo is also considered a bruising defender, but is much more fleet of foot than Engelland.

While these pairings replicate the balanced system that the Penguins ideally would prefer, it seems that Bylsma will pair Engelland with Orpik and Niskanen with Bortuzzo.

Offense is healthy – Despite the lack of offensive presence against the Blues, the Penguins recently got back James Neal and Beau Bennett from injury. Neal, who missed the entire season up until now, was placed back on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Jussi Jokinen. The trio is expected to provide a spark to the Penguins sputtering offense.

A separate effect of the return of James Neal to the lineup is that opposing coaches will now have to defend two top scoring lines. Over the past six games teams were barely paying attention to Evgeni Malkin, focusing their attention to Sidney Crosby and the number one unit. With a healthy second line, the opposition will no doubt have to prepare for two equally strong scoring lines, thusly, opening up the possibilities of mismatched defensive pairings throughout the game.

Beau Bennett returned on Saturday as well. He was placed alongside Brandon Sutter and newcomer Matt D’Agostini. The trio is more of a prototypical third line in the NHL, all possessing offensive upside with a keen eye to defense.

Bennett is a very heads up player who is always creating offense. His shot, while not great, is still acurate enough to open up passing lanes. Sutter, who has had a lackluster season production wise, should instantly benefit from having a true playmaker on his line. Playing mostly with some overachieving fourth liners so far this season has forced Sutter to play a strictly shut down role, producing offensively only when chances appear. Now Coach Bylsma has the option of playing his third line more consistently, allowing the top lines to play more appropriate minutes, which should help balance out production as well as spark some players.

With a proper balance of playing time likely to occur, one should expect to see the top line return to form.  Playing that amount of time clearly takes its toll on players. Crosby has been playing upwards of 23 minutes per game, an uncommon number for forwards. The entire first line has suffered from this. Pascal Dupuis has not scored a goal in his past 9 games and Crosby has just three points in his last five games. The Penguins need to alleviate some of the pressure off the first line and being able to roll four lines should do the trick.

One should not expect this to instantly impact the Penguins offensive production though; it will take time to return back to normal and further struggles will be expected as the lines try to rebuild chemistry.

The final aspect of the offensive resurgence is the power play. With Neal and Bennett back to action, the Penguins should be more comfortable playing their second power play unit more often. Using Crosby and Malkin for two minutes straight on the power play might seem great, but it takes them off the ice for five on five play where the game is truly won.

Dan Bylsma’s team is in a bad streak, but it is not one that should last. The Penguins five on five play to date has been mediocre, but with their return to health it has the chance to be great. The game plan for now has to be returning the team to normal playing time. Finding consistency in November is a much better goal than finding perfection. Pittsburgh is finally looking at a healthy forward core and if managed properly, the offense will find its way.