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Takeaways: Line Switches, Defense and Letang

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

Head coach Dan Bylsma, forward James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen met with the media on Sunday at CONSOL Energy Center. Here are the takeaways from what they had to say…

Bylsma put Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a line together with Chris Kunitz in Saturday’s Game 5 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, something he said the two superstar centers wanted to do. “They wanted to go after it,” the head coach said.

It’s something that Bylsma has tried before for stretches in games, but never for an extended length of time. However, he kept them together for the majority of the game partly because of the way the other lines were playing, especially the combination of Jussi Jokinen, Brandon Sutter and James Neal.

“I thought they were very good in Game 5 as a line and as a group, and that almost gave me more confidence to look for times and ways to have ‘Sid,’ ‘Geno’ and Chris Kunitz play together as a group because we had the Sutter group,” Bylsma said.

Bylsma said the responsibilities of the rest of the forwards don’t change whenever Crosby and Malkin are together, but Neal said that the attitude does in the sense that those two playing together sets a certain tone for the team that inspires the rest of the group.

“They’re our leaders. The way they’re going is the way our hockey club’s going,” Neal said. “When they’re playing together, they’re tough to cover. And you can’t overlook Kuni because he’s right in the mix. When they’re throwing the puck around and they’re coming with speed, it’s tough for the opposing team. So everyone follows suit. We needed that game out of them last night. They’re in the offensive zone buzzing all night. That gets the energy in the building, gets the energy on our team and our bench and you can see it throughout our lineup.”

Sutter slotted in between usual linemates Jokinen and Neal and was arguably the Penguins’ best player in Game 5 apart from Kunitz. Sutter was flying and incredibly effective using that speed to gain the blue line, which resulted in a lot of offensive zone time for his line.

All three were strong along the boards cycling the puck and getting it to the net as much as possible. They were also strong matching up with Columbus’ first line centered by Ryan Johansen.

When asked what drove his line’s play, Neal gave a lot of credit to his center.

“Suttsy plays with a lot of speed. He’s really been coming out this year and playing hard,” Neal said. “He’s been good all playoffs. With Suttsy’s speed and his ability to turn defense into offense and get back on the rush, we felt like we had good zone time. We were going to the net more and shooting the puck. But just the way we worked and battled, that was the main thing and that was all we tried to do from the drop of the puck.”

The Penguins were without veteran leader and shutdown defenseman Brooks Orpik for Game 5. It was certainly a big loss, but for the Pens, missing a key player on the back end is nothing new for them. Their blue line was devastated by injuries all season long – at one point, they were without their entire top-four.

That adversity they faced during the regular season in terms of guys stepping in and stepping up, handling different roles and responsibilities, helped them adjust seamlessly last night and for Robert Bortuzzo to slot right in.

“We’ve had so many different D-pairings and so many six-man units in different games this year,” Bylsma said. “Robert Bortuzzo has been a shutdown guy in a large number of games, so to toss him into a playoff game in the absence of Brooks Orpik, there’s no alarm bells. He’s a guy who’s been doing that for us a lot this year. He’s a capable guy going in and ready to go in and I thought it was really our best 60-minute game defending-wise and playing that way and Robert was part of that. Do we miss Brooks Orpik? Yeah, for sure, not being in there, he adds a big part to our group. But Robert steps in and is confident in doing a good job for us.”

Niskanen felt last night was their most complete game as a defensive unit, and a lot of that stemmed from the way the team played as a whole.

“We did our job and it allowed our forwards to play their game better,” Niskanen said. “They had more opportunities to forecheck because of how we played and it goes both ways. Our forecheck was really good, so they didn’t have a ton of energy to come the other way. Our forwards backtracked really hard, so we were able to have a good gap. That was a solid team game all around. If our forwards are having a really good game, our job as defensemen is a lot easier.”

With Orpik out, Kris Letang moved into the shutdown pair next to Paul Martin. And he had a heck of a game playing there.

Bylsma and Orpik have both said that Letang is at his best when he’s thinking defense-first and letting the rest of it – especially the offense – flow from there. And that’s exactly what he did skating alongside Martin and being tasked with the toughest assignments. He was fantastic fulfilling his responsibilities in his end, and even tacked on an empty-net goal at the other end to give the Pens a huge two-goal lead with 1:01 remaining in regulation.

“That was his best, without a question,” Bylsma said. “And it did root from the fact he was playing great defense and in that shutdown pair with Paul.

“To say that Kris is a defense-first guy, doesn’t mean he’s not using his skating ability,” Bylsma continued. “But that focus for him in playing that way is when he’s at his best and sometimes leads to him being the dynamic player with his skating ability and supporting the play offensively. I think he was all that last night. He was very good defensively. His gaps and physicality against their skilled players, they had a few opportunities that they nullified. He was left with the 2-on-1 that he made a great play on. In the game you also saw him be very good with the puck and going forward and helping our team there.”

It hadn't been the smoothest series for Letang up to that point, who got off to a rough start when he was benched in the third period of Game 1 for making a number of ill-advised plays in that game. So to come through with a big game when his team needed him most was certainly a huge positive.

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