Malkin becomes wild card on shuffled lines
TAMPA, Fla. — As his former linemates took the legend of the “HBK” line to greater heights in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night, center Evgeni Malkin found himself in search of chemistry with more characters than usual.
The Penguins’ quest to establish four lines of complementary components remains incomplete largely because they aren’t sure who to use beside Malkin in even-strength situations. And as long as the team’s march toward the Stanley Cup Final continues, as it did with a 4-2 win at Amalie Arena, there’s not necessarily an urgency to attain four-line fulfillment.
“Geno is the type of player that, regardless of who we put him with on a line, it’s a dangerous line because he’s such a threat individually,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “So we’ve used different people with him. I’ve used him with (Sidney Crosby) on occasion, situationally. To have the flexibility and the versatility on the bench to be able to do those kinds of things, I think there are probably a lot of coaches in the league that would want to have that.”
Malkin, who was not available for comment afterward, picked up his first point since Game 2 of the Washington series with an assist on Crosby’s third-period power-play goal. His clever puck movement with the Penguins captain reminded fans of the fun the duo can create when together.
But before the game, Sullivan explained he considers his stars too important and successful as centers on their own lines to combine them for sizable portions of time.
“The more that we’ve played together here, I think, the last couple games, we’ve gotten more comfortable,” Crosby said. “We’re starting to get a better feel for one another out there and getting some chances. I think he’s just got to keep doing the same thing, and as a line, when we’re together, we’ve got to find ways to create.”
Crosby’s productivity when partnered with Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz, so overwhelming during the regular season, is difficult to disregard at this stage of the playoffs, particularly with Crosby trying to put his scoring slump behind him.
Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, Malkin’s linemates until the center missed more than a month with an upper-body injury, are thriving with Nick Bonino in between them.
Matt Cullen, Tom Kuhnhackl, Eric Fehr and Bryan Rust are fourth-line staples because of their defense-first tendencies.
Malkin’s role as a wild card in the forward corps became apparent just minutes into the game.
His first shift came with youngsters Conor Sheary and Rust on the wings. His third came with Hornqvist and Cullen.
By the end of the first period, his linemates for at least small bits of five-on-five play included those four along with Crosby, Kunitz and Kessel.
“It’s definitely coming,” Rust said of a Malkin-line breakout. “First period, we were a little shaky. … But in the second period, our line was in the ‘O’ zone for most of the period, and we got a lot of scoring chances.
“There might be a play here or there where we might misread off of each other. That (chemistry) comes with time. If I stay with him, I’ll learn a little bit more, and things should come a little more naturally.”
Malkin finished with 9 minutes, 8 seconds of shared five-on-five ice time with Rust, 6:03 with Sheary, 5:27 with Crosby and 4:28 with Hornqvist, according to War-on-Ice.com. The Penguins generated more shot attempts than they allowed with Malkin on the ice, no matter who served as his linemates.
Few of his teammates doubt a winger carousel will keep Malkin off the scoresheet much longer.
“The puck isn’t falling for him, but he’s making some really good plays and handling the puck really well,” Cullen said. “I think he’s having a really strong impact on all the games and making some good plays, regardless of who he’s playing with.”
Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.