Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) looks for the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets during the third period in game five of the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 3-1.
PITTSBURGH – Putting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the same line for much of Saturday night’s Game Five vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets was a tactical decision by Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.
More than that, it was a decision made in the interest of creating a spark — in the team, and in Crosby and Malkin.
The Penguins won Game Five, 3-1, and now have the Blue Jackets on the brink of elimination. Score one for Bylsma’s tactics.
Though the change didn’t generate an even-strength goal, the Penguins dominated the final two periods of Saturday night’s game. Crosby still hasn’t scored a goal in his last 10 playoff games, but he looked like a different player in Game Five than he did in much of the series. Pittsburgh’s first goal came when Chris Kunitz deflected a Crosby shot past Sergei Bobrovsky to tie the game in the second period.
"They wanted to be together," Bylsma said of Crosby and Malkin. "They wanted to go after it."
After a late Game Four meltdown and loss in which Crosby and Malkin were again quiet, Bylsma said Crosby and Malkin "are our best players. We need more from them. We need more from the whole team."
The return from injury of center Marcel Goc made it possible for Bylsma to shift Malkin from center with the second line to right-winger on the first line, a spot that’s been in flux since speedy Brian Gibbons left early in Game Two with an injury. An active, aggressive night from Brandon Sutter on the second line helped the strategic change work, too.
"We went into the game with a good idea that we were going to see (Crosby and Malkin together) on numerous occasions," Bylsma said "It probably happened a little bit more than we initially planned, but I liked it."
Bylsma has played Crosby and Malkin together in stretches before while looking for a spark. In Game Five, he did it in part to keep them away from the physicality of Brandon Dubinsky of the Blue Jackets. In the NHL, the home team gets the last change after stoppages, allowing coaches to pick and choose spots for such strategic moves.
"It looked to me like (Bylsma) was trying to keep (Crosby) away from Dubinsky," Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said. "It makes for something different when you have 87 (Crosby) and 71 (Malkin) on the same line. But the (Craig) Neal line and Jokinen, they were pretty good, too."
On the Jackets getting the last change in Game Six in Columbus, Bylsma said the Jackets "have shown and Todd has shown both home and away switching out their centermen he’s working to get certain matchups. At times we’re going to have to be comfortable with letting them get the matchup they want.
"We have to play the game like we did tonight where we pushed the play, pinned them in the offensive zone."
The Penguins outshot the Jackets, 51-24, and got as many second-period shots (21) as the Jackets got in the game’s first 50-plus minutes. Crosby had a diving try at an empty net miss by just inches before Kris Letang put the rebound in to seal Game Five.
"I guess I didn’t want that one," Crosby joked. "It hasn’t been too long or anything."
He knows his team and its fan base are waiting. With a little tactical change, maybe Crosby’s time is coming.