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Penguins wingers find star-gazing crucial to fit with Crosby, Malkin | TribLIVE.com
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Penguins wingers find star-gazing crucial to fit with Crosby, Malkin

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins center Sidney Crosby celebrates with Patric Hornqvist after Hornqvist's empty-net goal against the Islanders on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the Penguins’ franchise centers. They’re responsible for $18.2 million of the team’s salary-cap space, or slightly more than 26 percent. They’re leaders. They’re Olympians and two of the best players in the NHL.

They’re also different. And how Penguins’ wingers adapt to either one, especially with another year of significant shuffling on the team’s top two lines, is crucial.

“Everybody thinks it’s easier to play with great players,” NHL Network analyst Craig Button said. “Well, yeah, it’s easier in some instances. But it also takes a player who can read off of what they’re doing. Because what they’re doing is so often not only exceptional but not commonplace.”

Playing with Crosby and Malkin can take getting used to, forward Patric Hornqvist said. Each does things differently. One’s predictable; the other’s not. But considering they’re on pace for a combined 227 points this season, it’s not exactly something to stress over.

“You can’t complain,” said Hornqvist, who has played 18 games with Crosby and five with Malkin. “But they do play different styles. Sid brings more physical play and likes to take the puck to the net by himself. Geno will hold onto it and find open space.”

Root Sports commentator Bob Errey played with Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh and Steve Yzerman in Detroit, two vastly different players yet two of the best the NHL has seen.

What worked well for Errey was trying to occupy defensemen and playing physically enough to create space for Lemieux and Yzerman.

It’s something Errey sees in the approaches taken by Hornqvist, Blake Comeau, Chris Kunitz and Nick Spaling.

“Go to the net and let those guys use that area around you,” Errey said. “Use that confusion. Use that open ice to their advantage. Create room for them, and let their abilities take over.”

The Penguins lost James Neal (trade) and Jussi Jokinen (free agency) last offseason. Pascal Dupuis is out at least six months with a blood clot in his lung.

A trade, whether in 2014 or early next year, likely will fortify the group. What Crosby and Malkin like to do must be considered.

“They’re going to find you when you’re open,” Spaling said. “It’s just a matter of getting there, getting to those areas and playing that puck-possession game. They’re playing so good away from the puck. You want to be able to get them the puck when they’re open. At the same time, when you don’t have it, you want to get open for them.”

Direct comparison

Hornqvist was acquired in the Neal trade and spent the first 14 games this season as Crosby’s right wing, accumulating nine goals and 18 points.

Crosby produced 24 points in those 14 games but just two in five games without Hornqvist.

In coach Mike Johnston’s opinion, the pairing has worked because of their willingness to play a straight-ahead, simple game.

“Sid plays a little bit more of a direct game,” Johnston said. “Hornqvist can match him in that area, going to the net and playing that similar style.”

Hornqvist creates extra space for Crosby, Button said.

Button points to the example of Letang driving the net and taking a defender with him to help produce Malkin’s game-winning goal — the pass came from Crosby — to beat Boston last Monday.

“Because Patric will drive the net, it opens up a little bit more space for Crosby,” Button said. “But it’s not just going to the net. A lot of players go to the net. It’s that Patric is really good with his hands around the net. He’s able to get his stick on pucks and find rebounds.”

Another reason Crosby and Hornqvist have meshed is because Crosby, who craves routine, knows where Hornqvist will be on a given play. As a result, Crosby doesn’t have to change much, except for maybe shooting the puck more, to let Hornqvist work.

“Hornqvist is going to be around the net,” Crosby said. “If you get a chance to shoot the puck a little bit more knowing he’s going to be there, that’s something you have to be aware of.”

Kunitz, who had played the past two games with Malkin, said the key for him is always to find open ice and get around the goal crease, regardless of which center he’s playing with.

“They have the puck a lot,” Kunitz said. “You just try to get open and go to your areas. I don’t change my game to play with anybody.”

Tougher to read

Malkin is the X-factor, Errey said.

“Malkin plays with a change of speed,” Errey said. “He doesn’t play a straight-line game. With Sidney Crosby, you know where he’s going. He’s not going to cross you up. A guy like Malkin can cross you up.”

Which reminds Errey of Lemieux, the type of player Errey said could stop and start the game at will. It was up to his linemates to figure out when that would be.

When he’s playing with Malkin, Comeau said he sniffs for rebounds in front, expecting Malkin to drive and eventually shoot the puck.

With Crosby, he tried to find an opening in the slot, expecting a pass.

“Playing with Sid, honestly, when he got the puck below the goal line, I was just trying to push off guys and get open in the slot,” Comeau said. “With (Malkin), he wants to get the puck and try to get it on net, so I’m trying to go to the net and create some havoc a little more that way.”

Malkin was averaging 2.6 shots per game through Friday, down from his career average of 3.6. Johnston said Friday that Malkin needs to shoot more.

Wanted: shooting star

With Dupuis out, the Penguins likely have begun shopping for a top-six winger. Who that is, and how he fits with Malkin, has to be a considered. Malkin’s chemistry with Neal came about because they would read and react off each other on the fly, Errey said.

“They seemed to enjoy different things,” Errey said of Malkin and Neal. “They enjoyed variety.”

Crosby’s straight-line game and Hornqvist’s going to the net makes this dynamic tough to achieve.

Button said he believes Malkin needs to have someone such as Neal who can threaten goaltenders from 35 feet. And who he believes can do it might surprise you.

“Evgeni is going to get you the puck in spots,” Button said. “I think ideally, as he draws defenders to him, a guy who can shoot and threaten goaltenders from 35 feet — like Neal — can benefit from Evgeni Malkin.

“I see that player being Beau Bennett. I’d like to see him get a long stretch of games. He just seems to have a stretch of bad luck. He plays good then he ends up getting an injury, and all of a sudden he’s out again. I think they have that player if he can stay healthy, but I think it’s that type of player they have to look at.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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