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The Inside Scoop: Game Day (Pens vs. Panthers)

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
Good morning from CONSOL Energy Center, where the Pens are looking to get their third straight win tonight against the Florida Panthers.

Daniel Sprong was the only expected player missing from morning skate. Beau Bennett, who is on IR with an undisclosed injury, was also absent. Eric Fehr (elbow) and Pascal Dupuis (lower-body) both practiced with the team.

Head coach Mike Johnston said Sprong is in Canada getting an extension on his visa and will miss tonight’s game.

“He had an appointment (Monday) morning, the appointment got delayed,” Johnston said. “So once the process is completed he’ll be back here right away. … We’ll wait and see how quickly this moves along.”

The Pens did not do line rushes, but they did work on the power play – which is currently mired in an 0-for-17 slump through the first five games.

After Saturday’s game against Toronto, Johnston said they would make some changes and adjustments and we saw those this morning.

The biggest tweak was moving Phil Kessel from the left circle, where he’s normally hovering ready to unleash his incredible shot, to the rover position in the high slot with Evgeni Malkin at the left half wall and Sidney Crosby on the right half wall.

“I’ve never played there before so I have to get used to it, adapt to that spot, and try to get it going,” Kessel told PensTV.

I asked Crosby how the dynamic changed with Kessel there, and he said it actually doesn’t change anything that much because once they enter the zone, guys aren’t going to be stationary.

“I think a lot of those positions, everyone can kind of fill in,” Crosby said. “You’re not always going to be in that exact spot. I know when you’re looking at it, it looks like guys are in specific spots. But really, if we’re moving around and creating havoc, I’m sure you’ll see guys in different spots and just knowing whether it’s a lefty or a righty in that area is probably the most important thing. And then whoever’s there just has to make sure they’re supporting the puck well.”

Johnston agreed, explaining that Kessel, Crosby and Malkin aren’t necessarily locked into those positions.

“Your point guy is your point guy; your net guy is your net guy. The other three people on the power play can interchange, as we’ve talked to the guys about,” Johnston said. “We have different looks with ‘Geno’ on the backside where he’s played before. We can go with that. Geno can slide in the middle. Kessel can slide back out. We’ve got lots of options. The good power plays have an interchange of players.”

On that unit, the point guy was Kris Letang and the net guy was Chris Kunitz, who slotted in for Patric Hornqvist. Johnston said the coaches view those two as interchangeable.

“Our feeling is they’re both equally as good on the power play,” Johnston said. “They’re both very, very good net guys. They have good hands down low on rebounds, they’re good screen guys. So either one of them could be on either unit.”

“My job is to go out there and try and recover pucks in front,” Kunitz said. “It’s what I’m going to do tonight.”

But at the end of the day, none of that matters if they can’t gain the zone, and their breakouts and entries are something they’ve struggled with. That’s where the biggest improvement needs to be, and Kunitz talked about how they could do that.

“Try to keep guys with speed not being able to collapse on guys coming up the ice for a stretch so you’re coming all back,” Kunitz said. “You time your speed, it doesn’t let guys read into the play as well. Slide over and not make that clean entry. You see teams that have the good entry that leaves 30-40 seconds in-zone shift and two or three shots.”

The Pens went with two D on the second unit, placing Ian Cole at the center point and Olli Maatta on the left half wall with Nick Bonino on the right. David Perron was in the rover position in the high slot with Hornqvist at the net-front.

Speaking of breakouts, Kunitz feels that being on the power play with his linemates Crosby and Kessel is something that could help them break out 5-on-5.

The trio has been struggling offensively, as Kunitz and Crosby have no points while Kessel has just one goal and one assist through the first five games.

“Any time you kind of have the offensive guys on the power play it kind of gives you that confidence going into those next shifts,” Kunitz said. “Even though you talk about getting momentum, you still need to produce and get that production. It gives everybody kind of that warm feeling going out there and hopefully more things can trickle down from having a good power play.”

When asked if he’s considered splitting that line up, Johnston said the coaching staff feels they have been generating quality scoring chances every game and because of that, they’re going to stay together for now.

“Sid’s shot totals need to get up, but the players around him, their shot totals are high and their scoring chances are high,” Johnston said. “They’re getting opportunities. The other part of it for me that sometimes we forget is are they giving up anything? I thought they played well defensively. Certainly against Toronto they played well defensively. If you look at the whole game from start to finish, I don’t think they gave up really anything as a line.”

Tonight the Pens will host Jaromir Jagr and his famous mullet, who’s off to a tremendous start with four goals and seven points in his first five games.

“I’ve said it a lot, what he’s doing at his age is pretty remarkable,” Crosby said of the 43-year-old forward. “Deserves a lot of credit. He works really hard obviously to be doing what he’s doing at his age. It’s amazing that he continues to play and continues to produce.”

As a team, the Panthers have gotten off to a strong 3-2 start. Jagr’s line with young studs Jonathan Huberdeau – the Calder Trophy winner as the league’s top rookie in 2013 – and Aleksander Barkov – the second overall pick in the 2013 draft – have been the biggest reason for that success.

“I would say they’re a young team, fast team,” Letang said. “They rely on a lot of skilled guys and young guys that like to skate. That’s the key. You don’t want to allow them to be fast on pucks. You try to keep it on your stick and play a position game.”

Where: CONSOL Energy Center
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
TV: ROOT Sports
Radio: 105.9 the X, Penguins Radio Network
Social: @penguins, @PensInsideScoop


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