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Johnston Switches Up Top Two Lines

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

After back-to-back losses to the New York Islanders on Friday and Saturday, Penguins head coach Mike Johnston switched up his top-six forward lineup at the team’s morning skate heading into their meeting with the Bruins on Monday at TD Garden.

He had Nick Spaling, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist together as one combination during rushes and Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and Blake Comeau as the other.

“When we’re not playing well and our team isn’t doing the right things, we need to shake it up,” Kunitz said. “Got to go out there and earn your ice time every single time you get out there. You’ve got to be better and I think every one of us is going to do that tonight.”

Kunitz has been a fixture on Crosby’s left wing for the last few years when the Penguins captain has been healthy and in the lineup. However, he did skate with Malkin for the majority of the 2011-12 season while Crosby was sidelined due to concussion/neck issues.

The two played well together, with Malkin winning the Art Ross, Hart and Ted Lindsay Awards after recording his first 50-goal season and 109 points, and Kunitz scoring a then-career high 26 goals. Though Kunitz hasn’t played with Malkin at even-strength since then, they have had a lot of time together on the man-advantage.

“We still play together on the PP, so quite familiar with the way (Malkin) plays,” Kunitz said. “(He and Crosby) both end up in the same areas of the ice. They both have the puck a lot. You just try to get open and go to your areas. I don’t really change my game to play with anybody.”

Kunitz, Crosby and Comeau had played together the last three games after losing Pascal Dupuis to a blood clot in his lung. Kunitz and Crosby were both held off the scoresheet in both games of the home-and-home series with the Islanders. Looking at the bigger picture, Kunitz hasn’t scored a goal in eight straight games, while Crosby has just one in his past 11.

“You always kind of hope you could turn it around, but we hadn’t had the chemistry flowing 5-on-5 for a while,” Kunitz said. “It seemed like we weren’t really clicking and the chemistry throughout our lineup just wasn’t that good.”

While Crosby enjoys playing alongside Kunitz, he understands the decision to potentially switch them up in hopes of generating more offense.

“It’s tough when you play with a guy for that long, but I think that also you have to produce and you have to be productive and consistent and I don’t think we’ve been there,” Crosby said. “So sometimes change is good and ultimately, we’ve got to look at our own play and make sure that we’re better. Whoever that’s with, I don’t think that matters sometimes. I think it’s just a matter of making sure you’re playing well.”

Johnston said that while he will likely keep the trio of Steve Downie, Brandon Sutter and Beau Bennett together, anything could happen when it comes to the rest of his forward lineup.

“We may look at different combinations for tonight’s game,” Johnston said. “When Dupuis was out as of last week and heading into the Islanders series, we had to make some changes. We had fairly consistent lines for the first 10 or 12 games with maybe Hornqvist moving up and down on that right side. But Sutter’s line, with Downie and Beau, we thought generated in the series against the Islanders. We’re looking to probably keep those guys together. We’ll just see heading into the game, we may tweak it a little bit.”

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