Although it was only their second game since the resumption of the season, Monday night’s game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens had a distinct “must-win” feeling to it for the fifth seeds in black and gold. On paper, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan appeared to trust the process, icing the same lineup as Game 1. In reality, he was planning several key moves in an attempt to wrest the momentum — and perhaps the series — away from the upstart Canadiens early on.
First, Sullivan wanted to surpass the Penguins’ first period from Game 1, where they outshot the Canadiens 18-6 but found themselves trailing at the intermission thanks to Jesperi Kotkaniemi. To do this, the Penguins’ bench boss started double-shifting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin almost immediately. The move paid dividends, as Crosby, hitting the ice for the third time already, would score on the seventh shift of the game. Not content with taking a 1-0 advantage, Sullivan continued to pile on the pressure. One of Crosby or Malkin would be on the ice every other shift for the remainder of the first period at even strength.
Second, Sullivan identified the weak points in his own team from Game 1 and tried to minimize them. Jack Johnson, in particular, saw his role diminished, as some of his shifts alongside Justin Schultz were given to Marcus Pettersson. The Penguins’ third line of Patrick Marleau, Jared McCann, and Patric Hornqvist was also marginalized, with none of the three surpassing 10 minutes played at even strength. The fourth line, although entrusted with a few key shifts here and there, likewise didn’t see much ice.
Sullivan has identified that the Canadiens are looking to survive his top six and take advantage of his bottom six, and his response has been to limit the Habs’ exposure to his bottom trios. For a Canadiens team and coaching staff accustomed to rolling four lines, this poses a considerable problem.
Moreover, Sullivan has enough trust in his bottom six to use them in spot duty against Montreal’s top forwards to disrupt their matchup rhythm. In Game 2, two shifts after the Penguins took the lead, Phillip Danault’s line found themselves lined up across from Zach Aston-Reese’s trio, meaning Crosby, who hopped across the boards immediately afterward, could then face off against Nick Suzuki. Sullivan went back to this matchup again toward the tail end of the period, using Aston-Reese to tie down the Canadiens’ top line after a Crosby vs. Max Domi shift in order to match Malkin against Suzuki.
Now, with a tied series and last change for the next two games, how will Claude Julien respond? His biggest problem may be that while individual players are excelling, none of his trios have particularly clicked so far. Danault’s line can neutralize one of Pittsburgh’s top two units, but Suzuki’s line is struggling. Kotkaniemi’s line has performed well in limited minutes, but hasn’t been trusted with the harder assignments. Finally, the fourth line is treading water at best.
Can the head coach create circumstances where his players can go on the offensive rather than just fending off Penguin attacks? Can he find some way to increase the impact of Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin? Does he have an answer for Crosby and Malkin hitting the ice every other shift?
We’ll find out on Wednesday night.