Point Shots: Searching for Sidney's mates
Pittsburgh's endless pursuit to find the best linemates for center Sidney Crosby remains one of the hottest storylines of the season and a favorite pastime among fantasy hockey owners.
Coming off a franchise record-tying low of 11 shots in a loss to the Sharks on Tuesday night, Penguins coach Michel Therrien again shook up his lines during practice Wednesday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Therrien split up Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who had been together for the past five games in which they amassed four goals and 14 assists. But the dynamic duo had just a goal and three assists in the past two games, both losses after three consecutive victories.
"We're having a hard time generating [offense] after Crosby's line," Therrien told the Post-Gazette. "That's the danger of putting Malkin and Crosby together. You want to see how the rest of the crew will be able to generate, and obviously we didn't generate enough, so we've got to change the plan a little bit."
Pascal Dupuis remained on Crosby's left wing, but it was Ruslan Fedotenko who got another chance to play alongside Crosby, according to the Post-Gazette. Dupuis left practice early after getting hit in the foot by a shot, and the Post-Gazette did not have any more details about his injury.
Malkin moved back to centering the second line with familiar right winger Petr Sykora, but this time also with grinding left winger Matt Cooke, the paper reported. That bumped center Jordan Staal to the third line between Miroslav Satan and Tyler Kennedy. Mike Zigomanis and wingers Paul Bissonnette and Eric Godard made up the fourth line, the paper reported.
"We need to have some more guys with confidence in scoring," Sykora, who has a goal and two assists in seven games, told the Post-Gazette. "You can't have just one or two guys."
All fantasy owners need to know is if and when any of the Penguins forwards not named Malkin or Crosby will start producing more consistently. Satan leads the team with four goals and is third in scoring with six points, but he hasn't had a point in the past three games. Kennedy hasn't scored since notching two in the season opener. Fedotenko has two goals in 10 games. Staal, a natural center who started the season adjusting to playing wing, has yet to score a goal.
These and others have had some time skating with either Crosby or Malkin but none has taken off. As a result, fantasy hockey owners need to keep up to date on the latest line juggling and be prepared to do some roster juggling of their own.
At 5-3-2, the Penguins are a disappointing seventh in the Eastern Conference after many had them pegged to repeat as conference champions. Getting back among the East leaders won't be easy without injured offensive defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney to move the puck up to their talented forwards, and if Crosby keeps seeing a revolving door of wingers because of a lack of chemistry.
If Pittsburgh's scoring struggles continue and if Staal's contract negotiations drag on into March, the future restricted free agent might be dealt to obtain a star winger for Crosby, just as GM Ray Shero did last season by obtaining Marian Hossa before the trade deadline.
One thing is certain for the Pens this season: They will produce no shortage of stories and analysis about the latest line combinations.
Ottawa coach Craig Hartsburg's line shakeups are also among the most scrutinized because of the talents of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. The three can create one of the most dynamic lines in the league, but Hartsburg would like to spread out his offense, and he hasn't found the right combinations while getting off to a 3-5-1 start.
He finally got the desired results Monday night in a 5-2 victory over the Sabres. Spezza had two goals and an assist with winger Antoine Vermette joining Heatley on the top line, Alfredsson with center Mike Fisher and Nick Foligno on the second unit and Chris Kelly, Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu forming the third line. It also helped that the fourth-liner Shean Donovan chipped in with a goal assisted by linemates Jesse Winchester and Dean McAmmond.
Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson combined for one power-play goal, but the Senators are searching for more goals at even strength. They have 14 so far compared with 20 against.
Stopping the four-game losing streak, Ottawa's longest in seven years, helped make a trip to owner Eugene Melnyk's Florida ranch Tuesday a little less tense.
"I don't think it's a relief [to win]," Hartsburg told The Ottawa Sun. "Winning should never be a relief. We knew we had to do some things to tighten some things up, and we did a good job."
Alfredsson should be a little relieved as he is rumored to be close to signing a four-year contract extension worth more than $20 million, according to the Sun.
At the other end of the rink, goalie Alex Auld will get his fourth consecutive start for the Senators on Thursday at Florida, although Martin Gerber has recovered from his leg injury and will be back on the bench as the backup.
Auld has two of the Sens' victories and could be on the verge of stealing the No. 1 job more permanently if he stays hot. He has a 2.52 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in four games compared with Gerber's 3.39 GAA and .891 percentage.
After a 4-0 start, the Oilers are suddenly in an 0-3-1 tailspin, with just four goals in their past four games.
In a 6-3 loss to the Canucks, winger Erik Cole was moved off the left side of the top line with Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff and shifted to the right wing on a line with Ethan Moreau and Marc Pouliot.
"It was half of one game, but I definitely felt more comfortable," said Cole -- who was ejected for not having his sweater tied down during a fight with Mattias Ohlund in the second period -- to the Edmonton Sun. "I was playing my game a bit more. It's a lot less over-thinking. It's more just reading and reacting to the play."
According to the Sun, Cole's move to the right wing where he has played the majority of his career suits him better, as does working on a grittier line with Moreau and Pouliot (or Fernando Pisani when he returns to the lineup).
"I said from the start, wherever. If you look at our top nine, we have guys who can be moved around anywhere, guys who can play a couple of different styles," Cole told the Sun. "Within that mix, whatever is going to work best for us on a nightly basis is fine by me.
"I'll go out and play centre if I have to, as long as we're scoring goals and creating offense."
The offense expected from Cole hasn't been coming with just a goal and an assist through eight games.
"Now I think he's playing with more like-minded players," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish told the Sun. "I've got a better idea of what fits better for him than I did 10 days ago. That line looked really good; it's going to be a handful, whether it's Fernie in the middle or Pouliot, Ethan and Cole are tough to play against."
Bruins coach Claude Julien isn't reluctant to flip his power-play units, and recently gave the No. 2 unit of David Krejci, Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic, Andrew Ference and Dennis Wideman a chance to start the man advantage instead of the No. 1 unit that features Marc Savard, Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron.
"They've been our most successful power play," Julien told the Boston Herald after the Bruins' 5-4 victory over the Thrashers on Saturday. "If I had the choice between two fresh power plays, I was going with the Krejci one. They're the ones that are giving us the most goals. It's important that players don't take a position of status and think they're automatically going to get that specific ice time."
Besides coming up with a 4-2 victory over the Wild on Wednesday night, the Stars have more good news around the corner.
Defenseman Sergei Zubov was expected to make his season debut Saturday against the Bruins after recovering from hip surgery, but his return will be delayed until next week because the team had received an injury exception to keep his contract from affecting its salary cap while he was out.
"I heard today that actually he's ineligible until next Friday," Stars coach Dave Tippett told The Dallas Morning News. "It's 10 games or 24 days, and he can't play on the 24th day. It's got to be the 25th day. He's close. I'm not sure he'd be able to play on it, but now with this rule thing, he won't be eligible to play until Anaheim next Friday."
The impact of Zubov's return will take some pressure off Stephane Robidas, who has been leading all Stars defensemen in ice time with a 24:23 average per game and has performed well with a goal, six assists and an even plus-minus through 10 games. Robidas should continue to be partnered with Nicklas Grossman as the Stars' main shutdown pair, according to The Morning News. But Robidas, who had a game-high 7:25 with the man advantage against Minnesota, will see his power-play time reduced a little when Zubov returns.
"He's an elite-level defenseman who will give you 25-plus minutes a game and play in all situations. So, yeah, he can have a positive impact for us," Stars coach Dave Tippett told The Morning News.
"But our problems right now are in a lot of different areas with a lot of different players, and we can't be looking for saviors. We all have to get better."
Zubov should provide a boost for defensive partner Matt Niskanen, who has struggled alongside Trevor Daley, according to The Morning News. Niskanen has a goal, an assist and is minus-3 through 10 games.
Look for more production from the Stars' top-line forwards when they can benefit from Zubov's pinpoint passes, as well.
"He just does so many things to help our team," Robidas told The Morning News. "We always miss him when he's out."
Jim Wilkie is a former NHL editor/writer for ESPN.com. You can email him at email@example.com
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