Just seven games into the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have gone from having a surplus of NHL-caliber forwards to looking for creative solutions.
Injuries to forwards James Neal (upper body, week-to-week) and Beau Bennett (lower-body, day-to-day), both expected to be Evgeni Malkin’s wingers going into the season, helped give Jussi Jokinen an extended opportunity to find chemistry with Malkin, and Jokinen has found the net more than any Penguin other than Sidney Crosby in the early going. His four goals include a hat trick against the Carolina Hurricanes, his former team, who are still paying nearly one-third of his salary.
“It’s so much fun. You just try to enjoy every moment and work hard in practice and in games, and there’s some good chemistry going,” Jokinen said. “[Being in the top six] was my goal coming into training camp; I think that’s where I’m most comfortable, playing an offensive role, playing with good players.
“[Malkin had been] setting me up the first few games and I’ve been a little bit mad at myself that I haven’t scored on his passes. Finally I got the first ones, so hopefully I can get lots more goals from him passing. He’s so crafty with the puck and he can make those plays happen.”
When Bennett, who had been seeing time with Malkin and Jokinen, also went down, it was veteran forward Chuck Kobasew – signed after a training-camp tryout – who ended up on the second line. The 31-year-old Kobasew earned his contract not only after having a strong camp and preseason, but also benefited when 26-year-old Matt D’Agostini, signed as a projected third-line winger this summer, suffered a lower-body injury early in the preseason.
“Those guys are very skilled, creative players, so [I’m trying to] get in there, track down pucks and get those pucks to them,” Kobasew said. “I try to go to the net as much as I can so, hopefully, I can get to the net, maybe back those D off, give them a little space and, if there’s any pucks around the net, capitalize on those.”
Harry Zolnierczyk, the former Philadelphia Flyer best known for playing with a physical edge, was tied for the team lead in goals at the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and called up to take Kobasew’s spot on the third line.
“It’s only three games in for us down there, so it was good to get the call. [I’m] excited,” Zolnierczyk said. “Being sent down, you obviously start working on your game, improving areas. Being offensive is part of my game and that was something I wanted to show down there. I got the opportunity to do that and it paid off. I think I just basically want to play the same way; I know what I’ve got to do in terms of bringing energy for this team.”
When third-line forward Dustin Jeffrey was a healthy scratch Thursday in Philadelphia, the Penguins shifted things around again, bumping wingers Tanner Glass and Craig Adams up to the third line with center Brandon Sutter and giving defenseman Deryk Engelland the chance to play wing alongside Zolnierczyk and center Joe Vitale. Engelland, a healthy scratch in four of the Penguins’ previous six contests due to the team’s defensive depth, had played at forward only a handful of times in his professional career.
“I thought he played well,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “He forechecked, held the puck in the offensive zone, was good on the wall. He had a great scoring chance. I thought Deryk was responsible and reliable defensively as well; he had three shifts against their top [line] with [Claude] Giroux out there.”
“I’d still rather be a d’man, but whatever they need is good,” Engelland said. “It just adds to my game, another position I can play. In the long run, if that’s what they need, then I’m willing to do that.”
For Saturday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks, the Penguins added another forward into the mix by recalling Chris Conner, 29, from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The speedy winger was tied for the Baby Penguins’ lead in goals (3) and points (4) through three games.
So far, the makeshift lines have been effective enough to win six of Pittsburgh’s first seven contests, putting them on top of the Eastern Conference.
“It’s nice,” Crosby said. “The start of the season’s always an adjustment, and I think you really just focus on your work ethic and making sure you’re committed to doing what you need to do every night. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, but we’ve found a way to win games for different reasons. It’s nice to get rewarded early on and to build some confidence and some momentum.”