Number Seven Opinion: Number seven Mark Eaton’s four playoff goals are the most pleasant surprise for the Penguins this postseason.
Number Seven Question: Will head coach Dan Bylsma dress seven defensemen for the third-straight game, and with what result?
The fact doesn’t need discussion, and the opinion is a relatively minor point for discussion at another time—even though Eaton was born in ‘77.
The question, however, promises to be the most debated sports radio subject in the City of Three Rivers until either the next playoff series or Steelers’ training camp, whichever comes first. (Sorry, Pirates fans.)
After Sergei Gonchar was incapacitated due to a reckless hit by Alex Ovechkin early in Game Four, the Penguins were forced to finish the game with only five defensemen. For both Games Five and Six, Alex Goligoski and Philippe Boucher dressed in an attempt to replace the Pens' best blueliner.
The results were mixed.
In both games, Pittsburgh took a penalty for too many men on the ice, which could at least indirectly be attributed to irregular substitution patterns. The lack of a twelfth forward scratched Pascal Dupuis from the lineup, who, while not spectacular this series, is generally a reliable and responsible defensive forward.
Dupuis’ best asset may be his speed. Although he lacks the pack handling and creativity to go the length of the ice and score, which is how speed is usually noticed, he does have the ability to track down deflections and establish or maintain puck possession. A fresh Dupuis in a series where both sides have appeared sluggish at times could be an important weapon.
Without Dupuis, the fourth line has been filled by committee. Sidney Crosby, Max Talbot, and Evgeni Malkin have all centered the third line, in addition to their regular duties. Especially when playing in the nation’s capital, where Capital’s coach Bruce Boudreau gets the last substitution, these unorthodox patterns could have ripple effects throughout the lines.
On the other hand, there have been some successes with Boucher and Goligoski in the lineup. Each registered a power-play assist in Game Six, and it was the man advantage where Gonchar’s absence was suspected to be the most painful.
Boucher and Goligoski have combined for just over 47 minutes in the two games, probably very similar to what Gonchar would have logged. All-in-all, the play hasn’t been that much different. The two have done exact what they were activated to do. The only problem is that is takes two roster spots instead of one.
So back to the $77,777 dollar question—what to do about it in Game Seven?
If Gonchar does attempt a Willis Reed impression and attempts to play, there almost has to be a seventh defenseman in uniform as an insurance policy. Gonchar may be the most irreplaceable skater on the roster, and the odds of winning two games with five other defensmen going the distance in one series doesn’t seem probable. Whether it is the veteran Boucher or the rookie Goligoski is up for debate.
Boucher is not mobile, and could be a dangerous matchup if Boudreau gets his first line out at the same time. He does offer a solid slapshot from the blueline on the power play, and someone with his level of experience is not likely to crack under the pressure of a deciding game.
Goligoski is untested, but quicker to the puck than his veteran counterpart. He led NHL rookie defensemen in scoring for a time this season, while Gonchar and current Anaheim Duck Ryan Whitney were injured. He lacks the booming shot of either Gonchar or Boucher, but if 25 minutes of ice time are required from the position he might be the only option able to provide it.
Goligoski is undoubtedly a key part of the Penguins' future, but it has to be at least a little unnerving to be so reliant on a player who started the series playing against the Washington farm team in Hershey and Wilkes-Barre.
So if Gonchar isn’t back, which is probably more likely, the option of “both” instead of “which” presents itself. If the Penguins do play with seven defensemen, including Boucher and Goligoski, it isn’t impossible that veteran Miroslav Satan could be the odd man out instead of Dupuis.
Satan averaged less than ten minutes on the ice in the last two games, and was sent to Wilkes Barre late in the year, presumably not to return. He has been noticeable on the ice in this series, which is more than many Penguin fans remember seeing from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day.
Satan is playing not only for his current team, but to try to make a living playing hockey somewhere in either Europe or North America next season—a strangely-powerful motivator.
On the road, however, if only 11 forwards are skating, it might make since to go with the better defensive player to avoid a disastrous match-up. It has been a very unconventional series, but many conventional hockey logicians (possible oxymoron) would probably lean toward Pascal Dupuis.
So with Satan, Dupuis, Gonchar, Goligoski, and Boucher available for three positions, a head coach with three months' experience is ready to make the most difficult decision for the Pittsburgh Penguins since they found a way to avoid moving to Hamilton or Kansas City.
If whichever decision he makes works, Bylsma could be hailed with seven Pittsburgh city officials with seven trumpets marching seven times around Mellon Arena.
If the Old Testemant-esqe celebration is taking place in Washington, D.C. after the game, the said decision will live in infamy and prepare Penguin fans for the seven plagues to precede Armageddon.
At least it would seem like it...until Steeler’s training camp.