Kovacevic: A safer solution for a playoff lineup


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Erik Gudbranson at the skate Friday morning at Nassau Coliseum. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Apparently, Mike Sullivan's plan for Game 2 of the Penguins' Stanley Cup playoff series against the Islanders will be to push something close to the Game 1 plan right through the wringer.

Oh, there were no clues in that regard this morning at Nassau Coliseum, but that's how practice played out Thursday afternoon, with the same four healthy scratches staying out extra: Teddy Blueger, Chad Ruhwedel, Tristan Jarry and, yeah, Jack Johnson. So, barring some big-time break from precedent, it'll be the same forwards and same defensemen back out again tonight. Lines and pairings weren't shown in either session -- only 16 participants in today's skate, and all came off at roughly the same time -- but we might also see no difference there.

From this perspective, that feels more like hope than a plan.

Sullivan will hope he gets something more tonight from his No. 1 line than to get out-chanced, 20-4, as Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust did in the 4-3 overtime loss in Game 1.

He'll hope he gets more than a goal tonight from his Nos. 2 and 3 lines, dominant as they were. Evgeni Malkin, Jared McCann and Patric Hornqvist out-chanced the Islanders, 19-4, and Nick Bjugstad, Dominik Simon and Phil Kessel out-chanced them, 19-7, including that lone five-on-five goal on a sharp rush by all three:

Sullivan will hope his fourth line can achieve something more tonight than being dramatically upstaged by their New York counterparts. On one head-to-head shift in the second period, the Islanders' locally dubbed 'best fourth line in hockey' of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck kept Matt Cullen, Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson pinned in the Pittsburgh zone for nearly 90 seconds. That isn't a matchup either coach covets, but it was still striking.

Sullivan will hope he doesn't need to mess with his second and third lines to get the first one going but, as I've been assured, he'll always prioritize who plays alongside Crosby. So we'll see in warmups.

Sullivan will hope, maybe above all, that his defensemen aren't the disaster they were in Game 1. With Johnson out and with Brian Dumoulin and Erik Gudbranson both evidently fine at practice, that'll leave the same six and, because of the right-left alignment, the same duos, as well: Dumoulin with Kris Letang, Olli Maatta with Justin Schultz, Marcus Pettersson with Gudbranson.

Sullivan will hope Maatta, his worst performer at any position in Game 1, will return to previous playoff form.

Oh, and he might do more than hope that Letang will be a whole lot smarter than that toe-drag turnover in overtime, evidenced by this visibly spirited, one-way conversation between the two Thursday:

[caption id="attachment_804904" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Mike Sullivan and Kris Letang, Thursday at practice. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

I'm not wild about this. Any of it. Just want it on the record somewhere, even as I'd be fine with being wrong once Game 2's finished.

No one will care -- nor should anyone care -- what I'd do for Game 2, but hey, it's my keyboard, and it's supported off to the side by several cups of hard caffeine, so here are three changes I'd make:

1. McCann would jump to the top line. I'd qualify that the line wouldn't be as defensively responsible without Rust, except that Rust was the team's lowest-graded five-on-five forward in Game 1 -- 28.57 Corsi For percentage, almost inconceivable alongside Crosby -- and committed the short-handed giveaway that led to New York's power-play goal.

2. Malkin and Kessel would be reunited, paired with Rust. That would put Bjugstad with Simon and Hornqvist. This almost certainly would result in a slide from the outrageous numbers from the second and third lines in Game 1, but, to keep repeating, Crosby's the priority. Besides, when Malkin and Kessel are both flying as they were, I want them together. Let Rust rediscover his defensive conscience in that setting.

3. I'd dress seven defensemen.

And here's where it goes a little off the rails.

Think of Game 2 as a must-win, even though it mathematically isn't. No team would want to face a scenario of taking four of five from any opponent, and that's what the Penguins will have with a loss, couple with that bizarre noon faceoff at home for Game 3, in which anything can happen. This one's huge.

Next, think of the worst-case likely lineup wrench for Game 2.

Right. An injury to another defenseman.

Dumoulin and Gudbranson already are on edge. Letang's neck has already had him in and out. And any worst-case scenario in a playoff is embarking into overtime with fewer than six defensemen, as the Penguins nearly did for Game 1 and as the Islanders' tight style always makes possible.

Dress seven.

Get Johnson back in there. Not to make him happy. Not to fend off any drama. But because he deserves it and because he's exactly what the Penguins could use to better withstand what Sullivan's now acknowledged is "a heavy forecheck" from the Islanders. Rotate him through to keep him rolling. Send him out on the PK. Have him in reserve, if needed. Being able to play either side is a bonus.

To achieve that, scratch Aston-Reese. He's always taken several games to regain peak form after an extended injury, and nothing about his showing Wednesday dissuaded that. He can watch a couple more. And if Wilson doesn't remember that he's on this roster not to Corsi the boys to a Cup, but to keep clowns like Clutterbuck from wreaking havoc all over the rink, he can be bumped for Blueger. Better yet, rotate one star each through a makeshift fourth line

The fourth line isn't that important. Not at even-strength. Not this one. Definitely not in this matchup. It's a loss. So discard it.

In Game 1, including the 4:39 of free hockey, Crosby logged 22:38 of ice time, Kessel 20:56 and Malkin 18:53. Guentzel, their 40-goal child, logged 21:11. The fourth line, as a collective, logged 6:51. Don't tell me that, with a smooth rotational usage of Cullen and Wilson/Blueger, Sullivan couldn't squeeze out a couple minutes more from each of the stars.

Anyway, forget I wrote any of this. Just sharing.

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