During Monday’s morning skate, Penguins winger James Neal - who led the NHL with 18 power-play goals during the 2011-12 season and tied for second on the team with 11 this year - was practicing with the second unit.
That’s because the Penguins appear to be going with a two-defensemen look on the points, at least to start tonight’s Game 3, against Columbus and Neal is the odd-man out. The Penguins have been giving up far too many glorious shorthanded opportunities to the Blue Jackets, who play a challenging, fast and aggressive style when they are down a man.
With the Pens using a four-forward look during a power play in the second period of Saturday’s Game 2, the Blue Jackets forced a turnover at the blue line and were off on an odd-man break. They scored a backbreaking, momentum-shifting shorthanded goal that cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 3-2 and began a comeback that ended in a 4-3 double-overtime win for Columbus.
So today, both of Pittsburgh’s power-play units had two defensemen at the points. The first consisted of Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin with Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin, while the second was Neal, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Jussi Jokinen and Lee Stempniak.
Niskanen believes having two defensemen at the points at all times is almost a necessity against this Columbus team with the way they play shorthanded and with two shorthanded goals in as many games.
“The way things have gone, it might be a smart move,” he replied. “They’ve talked about it, they obviously have shown that they’re looking for offense. They’re looking to intercept passes (and apply) pressure, and even their defensemen are looking for opportunities to go the other way. Just with the way the last two games have gone, it might be better to have two defensemen out there.”
Neal understands the move to the second power-play unit.
“We gave up too many shorthanded chances and you can’t be doing that in the playoffs,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can play on the first unit and it’s a different look, but we’re going to go with it and hopefully we can be successful.
“We’re in different spots all the time. Last game we switched in and out between myself and ‘Kuni’ and going with two D. If it’s different guys, that’s okay. We’ll go with it and we need to be better on the PP and create more chances and ultimately get our team going from it.”
The mentality those defensemen have to have, said both Niskanen and Martin, is to be responsible.
“You want to create momentum, you want to be aggressive, you want to do the things that makes our power play good, but you’ve just got to be responsible,” Niskanen said. “If there’s a breakdown, it’s going to happen. They’re going to deflect a puck, they’re going to look to go, they’re going to look for an opportunity, but we just have to be in a position where we’re able to get back.”