NEWARK, N.J. -- With 23 games remaining, and with Evgeni Malkin back in the lineup, the Penguins are as healthy as they're going to be, at least without Olli Maatta. This means any juggling is now about chemistry, finding where new guys Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad best fit in and scratching guys who can -- and are expected to -- compete for spots in the nightly lineup.
Tanner Pearson was scratched for both games over the weekend, Dominik Simon once, Garrett Wilson once. For tonight's 7:08 meeting with the Devils at Prudential Center, as the morning skate showed, Pearson will be back, Simon will play, and Wilson and Teddy Blueger will be out.
"When we look at our depth chart, and when Tanner and Dominik are playing at their best, they're more than likely in our top 12," Mike Sullivan said after a very much required skate. "We need to get their best in order to have success. The internal competition, I think, helps create a level of urgency in everybody's game that should help us be at our best."
The Sidney Crosby line, of course will remain untouched, and Zach Aston-Reese will get a chance to build on chemistry with Malkin and Phil Kessel. Beyond that, it still seems in flux.
Since the divorce of the fabled HBK line, Sullivan has desperately sought to find a trio to produce in that third line, supplementary scoring role. For tonight, at least, that job falls to Bjugstad and his wings, McCann and Patric Hornqvist.
McCann has shown his ability to create on his own so far, finding himself in the goal column and being unafraid to shoot when warranted -- even on the penalty-kill. Things have been a bit trickier with Bjugstad, however, as he's shuffled between centering his own line, filling in for Malkin during his injury, and playing wing for No. 71 as warranted.
Bjugstad told me after the skate about how it can be important for him to get touches in that center role, and how it can lead to his production: "If I get more touches early on, I feel more confident throughout the game, and that's a key. I'd like to generate a little more offensively and be a little harder to play against down low, get pucks down low, that's where I like to work it. I'll try to get that going tonight."
That will be a chance for Bjugstad to get going, and doing so with his current and former teammate and the "energy" Hornqvist brings to a team and a lineup. Hear him talk about that line a bit more:
That leaves five suits -- Matt Cullen, Pearson, Simon, Wilson, Blueger -- who enter the arena every night to fit into the remaining three forward jerseys. It's become increasingly clear that Cullen will rarely, if ever, be the odd-man out of that equation, so it really comes down to the remaining four fighting over the fourth line wings.
As Sullivan said, he believes challenging Pearson and Simon to fight for those positions -- guys he expects to be in the top 12 -- makes the team more complete.
Pearson, who's seldom been scratched in his NHL career, appeared to get the message.
"It's not the situation you want to be in," he said of the weekend. "It's a chance to refocus, to get back to how you have to play. If I'm out there tonight, I'll play my game, focus on the little things."
Pearson said he hadn't heard from Sullivan or the staff since he was scratched, but that Sullivan spoke with him last week in Tampa about how to improve.
"They want me to be part of the forecheck," Pearson said. "That's kind of where my game can be pretty good, causing turnovers and working along the boards, making plays out of that situation. And probably getting a few more shots."
He had one goal and one assist in the past 13 games in which he played, as well as only 15 shots.
Simon spoke with Dejan Kovacevic on that same topic:
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