Penguins congratulate Tomas Vokoun
The Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves in a difficult position following a Game 4 loss to the New York Islanders. The Penguins were in danger of losing to a lower-seeded team for the fourth year in a row and failing to advance beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third straight year.
After watching the Penguins get outworked, outskated and outhit through four games, head coach Dan Bylsma decided that changes to the lineup were needed. Some of the adjustments were expected, but some were not.
While the Penguins still have a lot of hockey between them and the Stanley Cup, the early returns on these lineup changes have been positive, and a closer look reveals how Bylsma's decisions may have saved the Penguins postseason, at least for now.
Tomas Vokoun against the Islanders
In what was an expected move after the Penguins' 6-4 loss in Game 4, Bylsma decided to make a change in net. He inserted Tomas Vokoun, who had not started a playoff game since he was with the Nashville Predators in 2007.
While breaking the news to Marc-Andre Fleury may have been difficult, making the switch was not. Fleury had become a liability, and the Penguins needed stability in net in order to get back to playing aggressive hockey—something they seemed hesitant to do in Games 2, 3 and 4, when they were trying to protect their struggling goaltender.
Now 5-0 against the Islanders this year, Vokoun's play in Games 5 and 6 proved that Bylsma's decision to sit Fleury, at least for now, was the right call.
Tyler Kennedy scores on a breakaway against the Islanders
With the development of Beau Bennett and the Penguins' acquisitions at the trade deadline, many Penguins fans, including myself, assumed that Tyler Kennedy would be relegated to watching from the bench.
He was for the first four games of the playoffs.
After watching the Penguins get outworked by the Islanders, Bylsma decided that he needed to add speed and tenacity to the lineup. Kennedy was the logical choice, and he made an immediate impact.
Scoring the first goal of a 4-0 Penguins win in Game 5, Kennedy now has more career game-winning goals in the playoffs than Sidney Crosby. Kennedy's ability to chase down loose pucks and bring energy to a slower veteran team helped turn the tide for Pittsburgh in the series.
Joe Vitale fights for the puck
The idea of benching Jussi Jokinen in favor of Joe Vitale would have been dismissed before the playoffs as foolish. However, the Penguins' lack of team speed and inability to generate a consistent forecheck in the Islanders' zone made such a move imperative.
In a high-scoring series against a less-talented but grittier opponent, Jokinen's offensive abilities were simply a luxury that the Penguins could not afford. Vitale, while limited offensively, provided hitting and grittiness, both of which the Penguins desperately needed.
Against a smaller and quicker Islanders team, Vitale helped to set the aggressive tone that Pittsburgh showed in Game 5. He set up Pascal Dupuis on the Penguins' second goal in Game 6, when the Islanders had dominated play to that point.
While Vitale might end up back on the bench against the bigger and stronger Ottawa Senators, his hard-nosed play helped turn the tide against the Islanders when the Penguins appeared to be on the verge of being eliminated.
Simon Despres handles the puck against the Islanders
Of all the lineup changes made by Bylsma, the addition of Simon Despres in place of Mark Eaton was the most surprising.
Despres has been wildly inconsistent all season and was thought to have been relegated to the bench for the remainer of the playoffs after a poor performance in Game 3.
However, the Penguins' lack of speed on the blue line had become such a liability that Bylsma decided to replace Eaton with Despres to play alongside Kris Letang. Playing a more stay-at-home type of role alongside Letang, Despres played well in Games 5 and 6.
Because the Senators are a slower but bigger team than the Islanders, Bylsma may ultimately choose to bench Despres in favor of Eaton for the second round.
For now, expect him to wait and see if Despres can hold up against a more physical opponent or if he will show the inconsistency that plagued him throughout the season.
Sidney Crosby celebrates with Jarome Iginla
When Penguins GM Ray Shero acquired Jarome Iginla at the trade deadline, most observers believed that he would play alongside Crosby, as he did with Team Canada during their gold-medal run in the 2010 Olympics.
However, Bylsma had other ideas.
In the first three games after Crosby's return from injury, Iginla played alongside Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. Clearly, Bylsma did not want to break up the line of Chris Kunitz, Crosby and Pascal Dupuis.
After watching Malkin and Iginla struggle to show any real chemistry on the ice, Bylsma finally moved Iginla to Crosby's line. The results were better than expected as they combined for big goals in Games 5 and 6.
The Penguins' lineup may again see more changes as the second round begins. But one change that should stay in place throughout the remainder of the playoffs is the pairing of Crosby and Iginla.
Penguins versus the Senators
Now that the Penguins have defeated the Islanders and advanced to the second round to face the Senators, Penguins fans shouldn't be surprised to see some changes to Dan Bylsma's lineup.
The Islanders were a smaller and faster team, but the Senators are a bigger and more physical team. Therefore, it stands to reason that Bylsma would adjust his personnel and possibly go back to his original lineup.
No one can be sure since Bylsma has refused to divulge lineup information so far.
Ultimately, it is not about putting the best players on the ice, it is about putting the right players on the ice. Penguins fans will have to wait to see who Bylsma decides the right players are to face off against the Senators.