Penguins rolling with new top line into second Cup Rematch with Sharks

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the San Jose Sharks a couple of weeks in their first Stanley Cup final rematch of the season, they did so without the services of their captain, Sidney Crosby.

The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner has since returned to the lineup and is playing a particularly dominant brand of hockey heading into San Jose on Saturday night when the Penguins return to the site of their Cup-clinching win for their second — and final — meeting with the Sharks this season.

Since returning to the lineup after missing the first couple of weeks of the season with a concussion, Crosby has recorded at least one point in every game he has played. It is all part of a stretch that dates back to the end of the 2015-16 regular season has seen him record at least one point in 25 out of 26 regular season games.

That stretch includes 38 total points and 11 multi-point games. He is currently just one goal behind the league leaders this season even though he has only played in five games.

Over the past two games (where he has scored three of his goals) he has been doing his damage with a couple of new linemates after Mike Sullivan and the Penguins coaching staff did some tinkering to the team’s line combinations.

Gone is the HBK line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel that was so dominant during the team’s Stanley Cup run in the spring. In its place is a more top-loaded look that has taken the bold approach of putting the team’s best wingers alongside its best centers.

Kessel, the team’s leading scorer in the playoffs in 2016, is now occupying a spot on Evgeni Malkin‘s wing, while Hagelin has taken a place alongside Crosby and Patric Hornqvist on the top line.

The early returns have been promising for the Penguins, especially as it relates to the newly formed Crosby unit which has been nothing short of dominant in the two games it has been together.

Since Sullivan assembled that trio during their 5-1 win in Anaheim on Wednesday night, they have combined to score three goals (while giving up none) and have controlled more than 61 percent (26 out of 42) of the total shot attempts during 5-on-5 play. What is fascinating about this combination is Hagelin and Hornqvist bring a lot of the same qualities that Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz brought to Crosby’s line for so long in recent seasons.

Hornqvist provides the physical, net-front presence and does a lot of the dirty work down low, while Hagelin has the game-breaking speed that Dupuis used to bring that can open things up.

There’s always been a perception that Crosby can be difficult to play with and that it takes a certain type of player to work on his wing, and to a point, it’s probably true (at least as it relates to the latter point). Not everybody has clicked with him the way players like Dupuis and Kunitz did, and he seems to be at his best when he has more straight-line, north-south players working on his wings.

Hagelin and Hornqvist are giving him exactly that.

In the end, this was a shakeup that was probably due to happen.

Even though the team has been winning pretty consistently all season, the Penguins’ early season play was not anywhere close to the level we saw a year ago. Injuries were no doubt a factor (particularly to Crosby and Letang), but a big part of it was also the HBK line struggling to duplicate its play from the spring. Before being split up they had not accounted for a single goal when all three players were on the ice together and were spending far too much time in their own end. They had to try something new. Right now getting Kessel onto a line with Malkin and Kunitz, and Hagelin onto a line with Crosby and Hornqvist seems to have given all of them a boost.