PITTSBURGH -- Maybe it's a subtle change, maybe it's not. But Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma may be signaling how he plans to roll out his lines when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in two weeks.
Bylsma tweaked his combinations during the morning skate Tuesday, reinserting Pascal Dupuis onto the Sidney Crosby line that also includes Tyler Kennedy. Matt Cooke, who has been thriving offensively while playing the last seven games on Crosby’s line, was back with Jordan Staal and Steve Sullivan.
The top line of Chris Kunitz (23 goals), Evgeni Malkin (46 goals) and James Neal (35 goals) remains together.
Bylsma usually doesn't do such game-day tinkering unless he plans to go with such a lineup that night. The Penguins (47-22-6), just one point behind the New York Rangers in the race for the Eastern Conference lead, take on the New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center.
"I think more and more in the next seven games you're going to see people who are going to be playing with each other going forward," said Bylsma, who has been trying out different line combinations ever since Crosby returned March 15.
Crosby, for example, played at least one shift with every forward except Craig Adams during an 8-4 loss in Ottawa on Saturday. One night later, Crosby not only played a little with the gritty Adams, they both picked up an assist on Dupuis' goal during the second period.
Dupuis has played on Crosby's line regularly in the past, usually with Kunitz. Dupuis and Kunitz were Crosby's linemates before Crosby missed the second half of the 2010-11 season with a concussion, and Bylsma put them together again when Crosby returned to play eight games starting Nov. 21.
Most recently, Dupuis and Steve Sullivan were playing on Staal's line.
"You play with Sid, you play with Jordan, you play with Evgeni, you play with a great player," said Dupuis, who is enjoying a career year with 23 goals and 50 points in 75 games. "You play with a great centerman. When you play on this team, you play with unbelievable talent. It's a matter of clicking together."
Dupuis added, "And we play one way. It's not like somebody is going to do different things on the ice, forecheck differently, we all do it the same. Some do it with more skill than the others, but that's what our game looks like."
By reinserting Dupuis on Crosby's line, Bylsma is restoring the speed element that was present when Kunitz was on the Penguins captain's line. Returning Cooke to Staal's line with Sullivan means Bylsma could be anticipating using them for defensive purposes against opposing teams' top lines in the playoffs.
Cooke is known more for his aggressiveness and physicality than his scoring skills, yet he had 5 goals and 3 assists in seven games on Crosby's line.
And while Bylsma wants all of his lines playing the same way, Dupuis said a wing must anticipate anything -- any pass in any situation -- while playing alongside the gifted Crosby.
"Jordan likes to hold onto the puck, use his big frame to create space, and Sid is also very strong on his skates and he wants to deke guys and spin on guys," Dupuis said. "With Jordan, you go to the net hard and you expect passes, you make plays. With Sid sometimes it ends up on your stick and it’s like, 'Whoa. How did he do that?' But you can't get mesmerized by what he does out there, you've just got to try to keep up with him."
The Penguins' difficult schedule down the stretch may be one reason why Bylsma is starting to look at his potential playoff lines now rather than later. After a home-and-home series with the Islanders that ends Thursday, the Penguins play at Buffalo on Friday, followed by the Flyers at home Sunday and again on April 7, the Bruins on the road April 3 and the Rangers at home April 5.
"For us, we want to make sure we're playing well down the stretch here," Crosby said. "Playing divisional games kind of gets a little more rowdy, too. I think it's a good thing."
Crosby has scored in each of his last two games, a possible sign that he is fully on his game seven games into his second comeback from concussion-like symptoms this season. Before getting goals Saturday against Ottawa and Sunday against New Jersey, Crosby had gone a career-long 12 games -- albeit it over a span of four-plus months -- without a goal.
His goal against the Devils highlighted the improvisational ability that Dupuis talked about.
Crosby swung his stick around Marek Zidlicky to control a pass that the defenseman was attempting to intercept. After redirecting the puck around Zidlicky, Crosby skated hard from the blue line as Zidlicky went in the opposite direction and beat Martin Brodeur on a shot that restored Pittsburgh's two-goal lead in the third period.
"It's not unlike Sidney Crosby to pull that off," Bylsma said.
It's also not unlike Bylsma to joggle and adjust his lines frequently during a game.