It seems likely Sidney Crosby will be able to return to the lineup for the Penguins’ playoff opener Aug. 1, but it’s 2020 so we’ll take nothing for granted. Should that happen, however, he and Evgeni Malkin will drive a top six capable of causing problems for up to five playoff rounds.
If there is an X factor for Pittsburgh in this crazy playoff environment, it’s Mike Sullivan’s third line of left wing Patrick Marleau, center Jared McCann and right wing Patric Hornqvist. Those three didn’t play together after Marleau was acquired from the Sharks, and their first audition came in Thursday night’s intra-squad scrimmage, where they looked fine together for whatever that’s worth. Both McCann and Marleau delivered even-strength goals and the trio did not look awkward working through their responsibilities at either end of the ice.
But McCann and Marleau ended the regular season in two very big goal slumps, McCann failing to score in his last 22 games and Marleau scoring once in his last 19 games, that goal coming in his eight-game stint with the Penguins.
McCann, who played center for just four of his final 23 regular season games, has a great release and isn’t shy about shooting the puck, but he’s mostly been a streaky scorer in Pittsburgh. Marleau’s skating and conditioning continue to amaze for a guy who’ll be 41 by the time the 2020 Cup is awarded, and lots of fans around the league will be rooting for him this summer – he’s played more regular season games than any player in NHL history without winning the Cup.
Marleau will have an important role to fill as a penalty killer for Sullivan, as it looks like he’ll be left off the second power play unit if everyone is healthy. But given his experience and the knowledge he might be in the midst of his last shot at a championship, he’s a fascinating character in the plot that has Pittsburgh making another long playoff run.
Sullivan’s reliance on left wing Zach Aston-Reese, center Teddy Blueger and right wing Brandon Tanev as a shutdown line won’t change. Aston-Reese is solid along the boards; Blueger is developing into an interesting player who often seems to skate under the radar but does a lot of little things right and absolutely has upside; and Tanev is a ball of energy who hits, blocks shots and perpetually seems bent on making up for something he thinks he didn’t achieve on his last shift.
These guys aren’t expected to show up on the scoresheet with regularity, but no one needs reminded that championship teams get offensive contributions up and down the lineup. As these playoffs begin, here’s what we know about where the fourth line left off in the regular season: Reese, two goals in his last 32 games; Tanev, one goal in his last 23 games; Blueger, two goals in his last 20 games.
So yes, they can contribute in other ways, but five of the Penguins’ current bottom six forwards will have to get their games with the puck pushed to different levels than what we saw back in the final six weeks of the regular season. The degree to which they’re able to do that could go a long way toward deciding just how close the Penguins get to another Cup.