With just 24 games remaining in the 2009-10 regular season and the Penguins jockeying for playoff positioning, head coach Dan Bylsma has done a little experimenting with his forwards combinations in anticipation of the upcoming playoffs. One of these experiments includes reuniting the duo of Jordan Staal
and Evgeni Malkin
at even strength.
“It’s not something I could feel comfortable doing at different times later in the year if we don’t try it now,” Byslma said. “We have seen Geno and Staalsy play together previously in their career. We saw them earlier in the year for very short times. Now we have seen them (again).”
Sunday’s 2-1 shootout victory over the Detroit Red Wings was the first time in this campaign that Staal and Malkin played on the same line throughout an entire contest. They remained together, along with Pascal Dupuis
on the left side, on Monday night against the Buffalo Sabres, when the trio combined for a gorgeous game-tying goal in the second period.
Dupuis moved the puck from the top of the Penguins zone to Malkin at center ice. Malkin skated to the middle of the ice and when two Sabres converged on him, he placed a perfect pass right in Staal’s wheelhouse where he ripped a one-timer from the right circle off the body of goaltender Ryan Miller into the cage to tie the score, 3-3, in a game the Penguins eventually won, 5-4.
In some circumstances I like what it brings to our team with those two guys together. We know what three centermen have done for us in the past. Nobody is going to write anything in stone right now but it’s not going to be the only time we see that this year. - Dan Bylsma
“In some circumstances I like what it brings to our team with those two guys together,” Bylsma said. “We know what three centermen have done for us in the past. Nobody is going to write anything in stone right now but it’s not going to be the only time we see that this year.”
Considering the success Staal and Malkin have had together – they also made for quite a combination during both player’s rookie season in 2006-07 – it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bylsma continuing to use them on the same line when he feels the Penguins could benefit from having a more top-heavy offensive attack.
Prior to this week the two had not seen extensive action together since the Penguins’ sweep of a four-game road swing in early October when Bylsma united them several times in the middle of games. During that limited time Malkin set Staal up for his first two goals of the season against the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 8 and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 10.
Malkin says the reason for their success is simple:
“We try to play simple. We played together our first year so we know how we play together. I like to play with him because he is so big and strong.”
During that first year Staal, 18 at the time, and Malkin, then 20, helped elevate a Penguins team, which had missed the playoffs four seasons in a row, to a 47-point turnaround and a postseason berth. The team really began to take off when Staal was placed on Malkin’s wing during the second half of the season.
Staal recorded a career-high 29 goals, while Malkin won captured the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year after posting 33 goals, 52 assists and 85 points.
The two set each other up for 13 tallies that season, while the Penguins went 8-1-1 as a team in games where the two combined to set the other up for goals. Their shining moment came on Feb. 10, 2007 when Staal became the youngest player in NHL history to record a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs – with Malkin assisting on all three goals.
Fast forward three seasons later, when Malkin is firmly entrenched as one of the top offensive threats in the world, and Staal has earned a reputation as one of the top two-way centers in the game, and it’s no surprise the two still make for a lethal combination.
“Jordan provides a very good defensive presence without giving up any offensive flair to what Geno can do on the ice,” Bylsma said. “They complement each other with Jordan’s speed and the way he is skating right now, and winning battles in the offensive zone. It’s also less time spent in the defensive zone because he is one of our best guys down low and getting out of there. I like the combination.”
For me it’s always a confidence booster to play with (Malkin). He makes my life easier. He always seems to be open and he finds me as well. It’s just playing with a great player. - Jordan Staal
“For me it’s always a confidence booster to play with him,” Staal said. “He makes my life easier. He always seems to be open and he finds me as well. It’s just playing with a great player.”
It also helps that both players, each a natural center, have become comfortable playing on the wing, which allows them to move around interchangeably when they play together.
“The coach changed the lines up (Sunday),” Malkin said. “I was playing the right wing. I thought it went well.”
“It’s something that was difficult the first year but I got used to it,” Staal said. “I take pride in adapting well to different things. It’s part of the game.”
The only difficulty with playing Staal and Malkin on the same line is that it takes away from what Bylsma often calls the strength of his team – depth down the middle.
With Staal, Malkin and Sidney Crosby
each centering their own units, it becomes almost impossible for opposing teams to match up against the Penguins as there isn’t a team in the league with three centers to match the sheer talent of Pittsburgh’s “Big Three.”
On the flip side, the Penguins’ impressive record when Staal and Malkin skate on the same line cannot be discounted either.
These are issues most coaches would love to have. Bylsma elects to look at it as a win-win situation which gives him plenty of options down the stretch.
“Is the three centermen down the middle harder for other teams to handle?” Bylsma asked. “It may be for some teams, and for other teams having a second line like this one is something nice to have.
“You do have to try it and work with it if it to know if it is something you can use in a playoff game or series.”