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Sullivan likes options with Malkin back

Return of Penguins forward gives coach lineup flexibility heading into Game 3 against Rangers

by Wes Crosby / Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin's return has provided options for coach Mike Sullivan to explore as the Stanley Cup Playoffs progress.

In Game 2 of their Eastern Conference First Round series against the New York Rangers on Saturday, the Penguins inserted Malkin back into their lineup on a line with left wing Conor Sheary and right wing Bryan Rust, who returned from a lower-body injury. That didn't last, however, and Malkin shifted throughout the lineup.

"Nothing's etched in stone ...," Sullivan said. "We're going to put guys in our lineup each and every night that we believe give us the best chance to win."

With the best-of-7 series tied 1-1, Game 3 will be played at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; USA, ROOT, MSG, SN, TVA Sports).

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Since Malkin practiced for the first time Thursday after missing 16 games since March 11 with a lower-body injury, Sullivan has expressed little concern with a potential lack of cohesion from inserting a returning player into the lineup.

Instead, Sullivan expects Malkin's presence to allow him to experiment in a way he couldn't late in the season. 

"That's going to be one of the challenges moving forward," Sullivan said. "We did a little bit more juggling of lines [Saturday] night than we have in the past and we'll settle into something here so that there is more continuity. But certainly with [Malkin] in the lineup, like I've said all along, when the time came to put him back in the lineup, it was going to provide options for us as far how we use guys.

"That's certainly one of the challenges that we're faced with. We feel as though it's a good challenge for us because we have obviously a player in our lineup that we think can certainly help us win and make us a better team."

Malkin finished Saturday with one assist and zero shots in 19:29. After Malkin missed more than a month, Pittsburgh didn't hesitate to use him in various position under certain circumstances.

Some of Malkin's time Saturday was spent alongside Sidney Crosby. In the past, pairing Crosby and Malkin has provided inconsistent results.

Sullivan didn't commit to pairing Pittsburgh's two stars moving forward, but said it's a viable option.

"I think both of these guys are in a different place than they were in previous years," Sullivan said. "They're a little bit older. They have more experience under their belt. They probably have the benefit of a little bit more perspective because they've gone through different experiences."

The defensive pairings weren't immune to being altered either in Game 2. Sullivan elected to scratch defenseman Justin Schultz, who had been paired with Ian Cole for much of the previous month. Ben Lovejoy replaced Schultz next to Cole in Pittsburgh's 4-2 loss.

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In Game 1, the Penguins scratched forward Tom Sestito and played seven defensemen, including Olli Maatta, who was returning from a lower-body injury, in a 5-2 win. With key players having returned, or on the verge of returning, from injury, Sullivan has made difficult, but welcome, lineup decisions.

Sullivan explained his rationale regarding sitting Schultz on Saturday.

"We felt as though we needed some defending defensemen in our lineup that would provide compliments to the other guys that we have," Sullivan said. "With [Malkin] being put back in the lineup and using him on that first power-play unit with four forwards, there wasn't as much of an emphasis on having a power-play defenseman, per se. That was certainly taken into consideration when we made that lineup decision."

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