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3 Things: Pens shake up lines and power-play units

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Here are the 3 biggest takeaways from the Pens' Tuesday afternoon practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

1. Line changes
The Pens used the same lines they went to in the third period of Monday's 5-1 loss to New Jersey, with Malkin and Kessel being split up for the first time this season:

Simon-Crosby-Rust
Hagelin-Malkin-Hornqvist
Guentzel-Sheahan-Kessel
Grant-Cullen-Sprong

"We've got some balance through our lines," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "We're hoping by just simplifying our game and taking some of the thinking out of it and just getting after it out there and trying to establish some momentum, that will help us."

Malkin showed some chemistry with the Swedes last season, with Sullivan pointing out he had 21 goals in 22 games while centering them. Sullivan feels that because those wingers play such a simple, straight-ahead game, they encourage Malkin to shoot the puck more, which is a positive thing.

"We want Geno to have as much puck as he can," Hornqvist said. "Me and Haggy just (have to) create lanes for him, go to the net and open up space for him because that is when he is at his best."

Guentzel, Sheahan and Kessel also developed some chemistry together last season, and when asked about putting them together, Sullivan again emphasized that they're looking to simplify everything and this is a trio they think can do that playing alongside each other.

"They're three pretty good players," Sullivan said. "Jake's a good offensive player. He's got good offensive instincts. Phil is obviously an elite offensive player and Sheahan is a solid two-way center iceman."

2. Power play changes
The Pens coaching staff also split up their power-play personnel on Tuesday. One unit consisted of Letang, Johnson, Crosby, Guentzel and Simon while the other had Maatta, Rust, Kessel, Malkin and Hornqvist.

"It's a wakeup call," Hornqvist said of the changes. "We haven't been our best."

With Schultz out long-term, the Pens' first unit has been Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist and Letang. And it's a rare occurrence to see the big three separated, with Sullivan trying it just one other time since taking over behind the bench. But he said just like when line combinations get stale and go through some struggles, sometimes giving the power-play a fresh look could possibly spark something.

"We may put (the first unit) back together, I don't know," Sullivan said. "I do know as a group of five in the big picture, we'd like to think that that power play is going to be our mainstay. But to this point, they've had their fair share of struggles. As a coaching staff, we're trying to walk the line of letting them work through some of the challenges. But at some point, if we don't see signs of progress or something that we can hang our head on to build momentum then sometimes a little bit of change isn't a bad thing."

The Pens are 2-for-19 on the power play in their last four games, with both goals coming in their 3-2 overtime loss to NY Islanders on Nov. 1. But not only are they struggling to score; they've given up too many shorthanded chances against.

"Our execution hasn't really been there or as consistent," Crosby said. "I think we've been guilty of maybe forcing plays or struggling in different areas. Whatever it is, we just haven't been consistent."

The thinking behind getting the power play back on track is the same as getting the team back on track: simplify.

"Usually, it's not a great sign when you have to break up. It's tough," Crosby said. "It's just a matter of just basic things. That's what we're trying to focus on out there."

"I think we just have to go back to basics," Hornqvist agreed. "Shoot the puck and retrieve and do the small things right out there. It's not always going to be a seam pass and open net. Sometimes we have to take a shot, get it back and get it up to the point again and then maybe a seam opens up. But the biggest thing is we have to have five guys working for each other and know where we are out there."

3. Leadership on and off the ice
Hornqvist, the unquestioned heart and soul of the Pens, always leads by example on the ice. No matter what the circumstance, he never takes a shift off and always leaves everything out there. And lately, he's been stepping up off the ice as well.

Last night, as the media entered the locker room, Hornqvist stood up and directed reporters to come and talk to him. This afternoon, he was again waiting and willing to speak with the media. He had a lot to say both days, giving open and honest interviews.

He admitted to there being plenty of frustration in the locker room, but said that in order to get themselves out of this slump, they had to keep perspective and try to have some fun. Watching practice today, it seemed like they were able to do so. And when I asked if he agreed, he paused for a few moments before giving a good, thoughtful response.

"In this league, it's so hard," he said. "You play 82 games, you play every second game, there's going to be ups and downs. Obviously this down is a little too much down than where we want it, but at the same time, (what happened yesterday), we can't control that. We can only control what we do today and what we have in front of us. We watched video, we learned from it and then I think we had a great practice. Everybody was smiling, working hard and we had some battles, too. That's what we need. You always have to try to get better out there and I think today was a really good day for us."

Then, when asked how he felt about the potential of breaking the losing streak in Washington against the Caps on Wednesday, a huge smile spread across his face.

"That would be great," he said. "Tough place to do it, but we've been playing a lot of games there and winning a lot of games there. Why not start there with the defending champions?"

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