After Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma addressed the media following his team’s 4-3 win over Columbus on Thursday night, he spoke with reporters again this morning. Since the team is off today, here are our takeaways from both interview sessions…
* Beau Bennett started on right wing of the first line next to Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby, but Bylsma replaced him with Brian Gibbons after the opening 20 minutes of play, saying “I thought we needed a little more on the first line next to ‘Sid’ and ‘Kuni’ after the first period.”
And Bylsma believes that Gibbons brought that with his speed.
“Flat-out, straightaway speed, I don’t know where Brian would rank in the league but I think he’s the fastest guy on our team,” Bylsma said. “He’s not the No. 1 quickest guy, but he’s the fastest guy (in terms of) straightaway, straight-line speed.”
That straight-line speed is something that Crosby’s usual winger Pascal Dupuis, out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, also brings to that side of the ice. It’s something that Crosby prefers to have in both of his linemates as Kunitz is a very hard-nosed, north-south type of player as well. That’s why Gibbons, who has that kind of speed in spades, is a good fit there.
“Sid’s a player that likes and needs his line and his linemates to force the other team with their speed and with getting on defensemen and being able to read off that, read where the puck’s going to go because of that speed,” Bylsma said. “You see that with Pascal and you certainly see that with Brian Gibbons as well. That’s a situation where he forces other teams with his speed, forces them with the pressure he can put on the puck and Sid is able to read off that. And that’s something he’s always wanted on his wings, always wanted with the guys he’s playing with.”
The Pens scored two power-play goals in the game, with both of those penalties drawn by Gibbons as he used his speed to chase down pucks on the forecheck. Bylsma also felt he used his wheels to be effective defensively as well, as Gibbons was a beast on the penalty kill, helping the Pens keep possession despite being shorthanded.
* Bylsma liked what Bennett brought switching over to the left wing of the third line with Brandon Sutter and Lee Stempniak. Sutter and Bennett combined for some pretty plays, as Bennett assisted on Sutter’s game-winning goal in the third period, and also sprung him on a breakaway with a gorgeous touch pass in the second period.
“I thought it was good for Beau Bennett as well,” Bylsma said of the switch. “He went to play with Sutter and Stempniak, it was a formidable line. They had the game-winning goal there with Beau passing to ‘Suttsy.’ So I liked what Beau brought to the third line as well.”
* Bennett played just three shifts in the third period, but Bylsma said that was because of the situations and matchups they wanted with the game tied 3-3.
“Just went with guys that we, in the situation, wanted. More of a three-line, 9-10 forward rotation,” Bylsma said. “That put Tanner Glass up in that spot for a shift in the offensive zone against Johansen’s line. Came to the end of the game, we had the power play so that limited that as well. Went with pretty much seven forwards in the last four minutes of the game.”
LETANG GETS A MESSAGE
Defenseman Kris Letang had a rough night on Wednesday. The two biggest ill-advised plays involving him were 1) on Pittsburgh’s first power play, when he turned the puck over to Blue Jackets forward Derek MacKenzie at the blue line – who skated in on a breakaway for a shorthanded goal; and 2) taking an undisciplined penalty late in the second period when he gave Boone Jenner a retaliatory slash after play had already left his zone.
That resulted in the coaches playing Letang just 3:55 minutes in the third period (including just one 48-second shift in the final 6:30 of play after taking a second unneccesary penalty, an interference call with the Pens on a power play). That’s a noticeable decrease from his usual ice time as the effortlessly-skating defenseman usually logs upwards of seven or eight minutes a period.
The turnover was certainly troubling, but the retaliatory slash on Jenner was what irked Bylsma the most. He said as much after the game, and reiterated that again today. Even with the understanding that Letang is an elite player and is targeted as such, Bylsma said his defenseman has to work on keeping his composure in these playoffs. Like he said, “that was an undisciplined penalty and one that could cost us.” And with the benching, Bylsma believes that Letang got that message loud and clear.
“I think he got a message,” Bylsma said. “Whether it was a voice or not playing or a nice talk, he got a message. And that’s something he’s got to be better at and that’s something we’ve got to be better at as a group.”
With virtually all of their power-play personnel healthy with the return of Letang and Malkin, the top power-play unit that the Pens practiced with both Tuesday and Wednesday had Letang and Malkin at the points and Crosby, Kunitz and James Neal down low. That was the unit out for the shorthanded goal against.
On the next shift, the second unit – Matt Niskanen, Paul Martin, Bennett, Sutter, and Jussi Jokinen – responded with a big goal when Niskanen’s shot from the point was tipped perfectly from the high slot by Bennett.
When the Pens went back to the power play 39 seconds later, Niskanen replaced Letang on the first unit and found the back of the net just 10 seconds in.
On the Pens’ third and final power play of the game, with the score tied 3-3 in the third period, Bylsma put Niskanen out and replaced Neal with Martin to have two defensemen on the blue line. Crosby, Malkin and Kunitz stayed.
Moving forward, Bylsma said we can expect to see Niskanen continue to get more power-play time. He was such a stabilizing presence and he has that cannon from the point that he doesn’t hesitate to use. That’s huge, because that shot-first mentality isn’t as easy to have as it looks on a team with so much talent. There’s a tendency to always try and pass to Crosby and Malkin, who both want the puck all the time. The two defensemen model is also something we can expect to see, depending on the situation.
“We had three different looks on our power play, from Letang to Niskanen to the two defensemen in the third. You’ll probably continue to see that from our power play,” Bylsma said. “Matt did a good job jumping in there. I thought our power play did a good job responding after the shorthanded goal, the second unit went out and answered right back with that goal. I thought that was huge for our power play. Matt was largely responsible for that, playing it up with Beau Bennett’s high tip. And then again on the second power-play goal we got, he was obviously the end of the play scoring the goal. So yes, you’ll see that.”