March of the Penguins: Back on the right track


Sometimes the most minor of shakeups is all that’s needed to turn around a deteriorating situation.

For the Pittsburgh Penguins, snapping out of their extended funk may have been that simple.

In the three games leading up to their tilt against the St. Louis Blues Saturday, the Penguins scored three goals in total.

Sidney Crosby, team captain and scoring leader, didn’t figure in any of them, and Pittsburgh lost all three.

It was just another disappointing stretch in an inconsistent season for the former league MVP.

Head coach Mike Johnston had a solution to his problem that appears obvious in hindsight but that many didn’t consider a viable option at the time.

He switched the lines around.

Moving Chris Kunitz onto the second line to play with Evgeni Malkin and replacing him with Patric Hornqvist appeared imprudent, even though Kunitz recorded one of his best seasons playing in 2011-12 while Crosby spent the majority of the year on injured reserve.

Crosby had largely played alongside Kunitz since the spring of 2009, when the Penguins acquired him from Anaheim at the trade deadline.

Immediately placed on the left wing of “Sid the Kid,” the diminutive power forward has carved out a wonderful career complementing the best player of his generation.

He has a Stanley Cup ring, four consecutive seasons with at least 20 goals and, perhaps most shocking of all, an Olympic gold medal from the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

It wasn’t difficult to discern that Kunitz – a marginally skilled player on a team of hockey virtuosos – made that Canadian squad because of his close relationship, both on and off the ice, with Crosby.

It’s understandable that both players would greet the move with apprehension and resistance after reaching a comfort level with each other. Still, that’s what Johnston went with in St. Louis.

Playing in a hostile environment against one of the NHL’s best teams, the Penguins hammered the Blues, 4-2.

The very next night, at home against Florida, it went even better.

Malkin erupted for two goals and three points, Hornqvist added two more goals – including another on the power play – and Crosby was probably the best forward on the ice for both teams, even though he came up with a lone assist.

The new line configurations seemed like a breath of fresh air, and not a moment too soon.

Approaching rapidly are the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Penguins are not as deep a team as many that will be invited to the dance.

The huge salaries earned by Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang will always make Pittsburgh a top-heavy team. They won’t win games by scoring only one or two goals, and Crosby and Malkin are paid to score.

Now it’s time for them to deliver.