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Crosby, Malkin likely to remain apart for Game 3

Penguins coach Sullivan prefers balance rather than stacking stars against Lightning

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

TAMPA -- If Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan wanted to, he could put Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the same line as a way to load up and dare the Tampa Bay Lightning to stop them.

Considering the impact they made on the first of their two even-strength shifts together in Game 2 on Monday, it's fair to wonder why he doesn't do it more often.

Malkin set up Crosby for a glorious scoring chance, a terrific backhanded shot that required an even better glove save from Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy at 10:31 of the second period. It didn't result in a goal, but it might have been a game-changing shift.

Pittsburgh outshot Tampa Bay 24-8 from then on and Crosby scored the winning goal 40 seconds in overtime of a 3-2 victory that evened the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Final 1-1.

Video: Crosby scores first career OT goal to even ECF

"We had a really good chance with that backhand, but it doesn't always happen that way," Crosby said. "But when it does, we can hopefully build some momentum off of that. That's kind of the goal."

Sullivan, though, doesn't put them together often, and he likely won't change his philosophy in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports), because of two reasons:

First, Sullivan thinks the Penguins' balance has been a key to their success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and he abhors the idea of disrupting that. 

"The line combinations that we've had and we'll continue to use, we have a comfort level with our balance that we have," Sullivan said. "We have strengths on every line that can play on both ends of the rink. We have a comfort level that our guys can play against anybody."

Secondly, by keeping Malkin and Crosby apart, it can lull the opposition into a false sense of security. That's when Sullivan can use what he calls his "coach's intuition" to put them over the boards together, creating the potential for a momentum-swinging shift that could lead to chaos on the other bench.

That's what happened in Game 2. 

"By nature the two of them like to play center, I think that's where they're at their best," Sullivan said. "But having said that, they can be dangerous when they're out there together."

Their one dominant shift together in Game 2 was necessary and could have altered the series too. 

Sullivan clearly wasn't happy with what he was getting from either Crosby or Malkin, so he put them on the ice together hoping they could create a spark and some personal momentum. Crosby responded with a dominant performance and the overtime goal.

"Obviously, when we put those guys together, we're hoping we get an offensive spark and try to do it in an offensive situation where maybe we can create some momentum for our team," Sullivan said.

Sullivan admitted Wednesday that he and his coaching staff have thought about using Malkin and Crosby together more often, even to start the game. 

"There really hasn't been much we haven't considered," Sullivan said. "We go through these discussions all the time."

In the end, the discussion typically ends with the decision to keep them apart because they have always seemed to operate better when they're apart. Considering they both thrive when they can have the puck as much as possible, it makes sense. 

In fact, when Crosby says it doesn't always work out, that's why. 

"We try to put them in positions where they can be successful and play to their strengths," Sullivan said, "and then we make decisions situationally within games and whether or not we think it makes sense to put them together."

It did in Game 2, when it created a spark for the Penguins and a concern for the Lightning. There might be a time again in Game 3 when it makes sense. There probably will be. If it has the same effect, it might be enough for the Penguins to grab a lead in the series.

"He's able to carry a puck; I'm comfortable carrying the puck," Crosby said. "So one of us can kind of get over the boards, on the ice and create something. It doesn't always work that way, but our goal is to go out there and create."

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