By: Casey Johnston (@PensNationsCasey)
Supporting Cast Matters
One thing that makes hockey unique is the playing time of players. While a quarterback in football may play every offensive down or an outfielder in baseball may play every inning of a game, even the best player in hockey will play less than half of a game. Sidney Crosby averages 21:59 minutes per game. Evgeni Malkin plays 19:58. It’s the same with every other team in the league. No defenseman averages 30 minutes a game and no forward plays more than 22:08 per game. The best forward on any team sits on the bench for more than half the game. A team needs a full supporting cast built around the star players. You can say that injuries are a poor excuse, but the most commonly used line combination in Sunday’s game against the Flyers was Evgeni Malkin, Jussi Jokinen, and Joe Vitale. Sidney Crosby’s most frequent linemates were Lee Stempniak, Tanner Glass, and Brian Gibbons. If you think that is a recipe for success that’s fine, but you’re putting unreasonable expectations on the play of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Get Used to Other Team Playing Playoff Hockey
One of the biggest complaints coming out of the weekend was the Penguins seemingly not caring while the Flyers were playing hard and getting in their opponent’s heads. Part of this was the lack of NHL-caliber talent in half of the lineup for the Penguins. Another part of this is the fact that the Pittsburgh/Scranton Penguins were playing two games in March while the Flyers were playing like it was game seven of a playoffs series because they are, in fact, fighting for their playoffs lives. I know people like to say, “Well that’s just an excuse” like they’re players in a locker room themselves, but the fact is that one team has a 15 point lead on the second place team in their division even after back-to-back losses while another team is one point away from being out of the second wild card spot even after back-to-back wins. From now until the end of the month, the Penguins play six teams that are fighting for a playoff spot. I’m sure the Penguins will not come out lifeless for every one of those games, but I don’t expect them to come out and perform at a playoff-hockey level with this current lineup.
Hopefully the current lineup is not intact for very long…
Injured Players Skating
The Penguins did get some welcome news on Sunday when it was announced that Kris Letang was cleared by doctors to begin practicing with the team. Beau Bennett has also been cleared for full practice while Paul Martin has begun skating with conditioning coach Mike Kadar. Letang returning adds a scoring threat that has been missing without James Neal and Chris Kunitz in the lineup. It will also help a power play that has gone 1-14 in the last four games.
The wild card is Beau Bennett. While he has shown tremendous skill and promise in the little time he has had in the lineup, he is still very much an unproven commodity. Of course the best case scenario is that he fills in on Evgeni Malkin’s line in the absence of Neal, but that’s not very realistic for a 22 year old who has played only 12 games this season and 38 total games in his career. He may find himself on the third line where he fit in surprisingly well last year. Where ever Bennett finds himself, if he can stay healthy and play at a high level he will provide much-needed help.