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The Inside Scoop: Pens Change Lines

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens’ biggest strength should be their offense with all of the talented forwards they have in their lineup, but that group has struggled to start the season.

During their first seven games, where they’ve produced a 3-4 record, they’ve managed just 11 goals – good for a 1.57 average, which is second-worst in the NHL. They’ve scored two or less in all but one game (where they only got three), and many of those elite producers are mired in slumps.

Because of that, after Thursday’s loss to Dallas the Pens skated in completely new lines during practice on Friday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

“When you change lines, I think everybody gets a little wakeup call,” said winger Patric Hornqvist, who has just one assist so far this season.

The biggest changes were to Sidney Crosby’s line, as both of his wingers were replaced. Chris Kunitz moved down with Nick Bonino and Daniel Sprong, while Phil Kessel practiced next to Evgeni Malkin. Familiar faces Pascal Dupuis and Hornqvist slotted in on either side of the captain.

The lines looked like this…

Dupuis-Crosby-Hornqvist

Plotnikov-Malkin-Kessel

Kunitz-Bonino-Sprong

Farnham, Rust and Porter rotated with Perron and Cullen.

Head coach Mike Johnston said they will use some of those combinations in the Pens’ next game on Saturday night in Nashville, while others they’re merely experimenting with.

Either way, there’s going to be changes because the Pens have to start converting the chances they’re creating, and that just wasn’t happening in their previous configuration.

“If you look at the first period last night (against Dallas), we had great chances to take an early lead in the game and we missed them,” Johnston said. “Are those chances going to fall for us? Yeah, they will. Do we have to tweak some lines? For sure, we have to look at that. We have to look at what combinations may work well together.

“There’s a lot of different players in our lineup up front and, right now, we’re not locked in to any lines. We’re going to switch them tomorrow night and we may even switch them in-game like we did last night.”

When talking to a few of the guys in the locker room after practice, they all said they knew adjustments were inevitable with the way they’ve struggled to produce thus far.

“Obviously we’re not scoring that many goals, so you knew there were going to be some type of changes,” Kessel said.

I asked Crosby if he felt a big shakeup like this could energize them and be just what they need to get going.

“We’ll see,” he replied. “We’ll see how everybody responds and ultimately, I think everybody’s role doesn’t really change based on who they’re playing with. Everyone knows what they need to do. But sometimes, it takes a little bit of (change) to get everybody going and hopefully, that will be the answer for us.”

Hornqvist acknowledged he’s been surprised at their uncharacteristic lack of goal scoring, and admitted that frustration has been getting them off their game.

“We have to stick with it,” he said. “We can’t just have one period where we’re playing good and then the next period try to do things on our own. We have to be a five-man unit all the time and can’t get frustrated. We were frustrated last night and that can’t happen again.”

On paper, the Pens’ forward group is deadly – headlined by Crosby and Malkin, who are joined by five-time 30-goal scorer Kessel, a number of former 20-goal scorers in Bonino, Dupuis, Kunitz, Perron and Hornqvist and overall, just a lot of skill and talent. That’s why Crosby isn’t ready to stress out just yet.

“There’s a lot of things that can affect goal scoring and we have to be aware of that and those details are important to scoring, but it’s early in the year and we have a lot of guys who are capable of scoring here, so I don’t think it’s something that we need to press the panic button on,” Crosby said. “I think it’s something where we’ve got to make sure that we’re looking at the right things to improve and being way better.”

At the end of the day, Hornqvist said the mindset has to be playing for the guy next to you –no matter who it is.

“It goes down to the bottom line and working for the guy next to you,” Hornqvist said. “If we do that, we know we have a hell of a team and a great group of guys in here, but we just have to get it together.”

BONINO PRACTICES

Bonino, who left late in the third period of Thursday’s game against Dallas after receiving a high hit, participated in practice on Friday.

“I feel pretty good,” Bonino said afterward. “I had a good skate. Got a good sweat.”

Bonino took an elbow to the face from Stars defenseman Jason Demers, who is set to have a hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety this afternoon.

“I won’t comment on that,” Bonino said. “I think the league takes care of these things. In today’s game the onus is to stay away from guys’ heads and I think the league will take into account the play. We’ll see what they say.”

Doctors determined after the game that Bonino would be able to partake in a full practice today. But Johnston said that although Bonino skated, he has not yet been cleared to play Saturday against the Predators.

“I still have to hear from the doctors today how he handled practice,” Johnston said. “He looked pretty good out there for me. I assume we’ll hear from them today and we’ll know further if he’s able to play (Saturday).”

On a more positive note, the lone Pittsburgh goal against the Stars was scored by Bonino – his first as a Penguin since being traded to the organization from Vancouver this summer.

“It felt really good,” Bonino said. “It’s a long seven games. I’m not unaccustomed to going through some slumps, but I think it magnifies when the year starts, especially in a new team. I was really happy with how I’d been playing the first six games. The chances were there. When they’re not there, that’s when you start to worry. But for that one to go in, it was the monkey off my back. It felt really good.”

--Joseph Guzy

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