After team captain Sidney Crosby went out because of surgery, the Pittsburgh Penguins made the decision to load up on a revamped top line. The Calgary Flames will be the latest team to see just how effective it can be.
The Flames, who snapped a six-game losing streak Saturday, play the Penguins on Monday at PPG Paints Arena.
With Crosby and then center Nick Bjugstad having core muscle injuries, the Penguins have flanked center Evgeni Malkin with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust the past three games, and that threesome has been clicking.
Since Crosby left the lineup — and including a couple games before the new top line was assembled — Malkin has scored or set up eight of Pittsburgh’s 20 goals, and Guentzel and Rust have combined for six goals in six games.
In the Penguins’ most recent game, a 4-1 win Friday over New Jersey, Malkin and Rust each had an assist on a play that sprang Guentzel for a breakaway goal, which stood as the deciding tally.
“They’re three good players,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “(Rust) brings a little bit of a different dimension with his speed than the other two guys. The other two guys have elite hockey sense. There’s some chemistry there.”
For the past couple seasons, Crosby and Guentzel have been mainstays on the top line, with little to no indication that they would be separated even at times when the Penguins shuffled line combinations.
But with Crosby expected to be out until around the end of the calendar year, adjustments were necessary. Guentzel thinks the team is onto something with the reconfigured lines.
“Top to bottom, when we have four lines going, we’re tough to stop,” he said.
Pittsburgh seems poised to get top defenseman Kris Letang back as soon as Monday. He has missed eight games because of a lower-body injury.
Letang was a full go Sunday as he practiced with the team for the first time. He said he felt good, and Sullivan said he was “encouraged” that Letang will be a game-time decision for Monday.
The Penguins are 4-1-3 in the eight games without Letang.
Monday will open a stretch of 11 of 15 games against Western Conference teams for the Penguins. They are 7-2-1 against the West.
The Flames sit just a game below .500 despite the losing streak. They were 0-5-1 in six games before they twice came back in the third period to forge ties Saturday and beat the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 in a shootout.
That left them 1-1 on a four-game road trip — and relieved to finally get a win.
“Good to get the monkey off our backs,” said Andrew Mangiapane, who scored against the Flyers. “I think we’ve been playing decent of late. Goals haven’t been going our way.
“We’ve just got to keep throwing pucks at the net, doing the right things.”
The win at Philadelphia was tense — Elias Lindholm scored with 1:23 left in regulation and goaltender David Rittich pulled, and Rittich had to stop all three Philadelphia shooters in the shootout to secure the win.
“We’ve rehearsed the six-on-five a lot this year,” Calgary coach Bill Peters said. “We’ve been in that situation (behind late in games) too often. I would rather not have to do that.”
Calgary’s last win before its six-game streak was a 5-2 game Nov. 7 against New Jersey. The Flames managed only to equal that output — five goals — during their slide, getting shut out three times.
“It just feels really good to win again, if I’m honest,” Calgary’s Rasmus Andersson said. “(The previous win) feels like a long time ago. We’re all excited. Let’s keep it moving into Pittsburgh.”
–Field Level Media