It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins can’t afford to lose another game in their second-round series against the Washington Capitals.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions are facing elimination, as they trail 3-2 in this best-of-seven series. It’s a position they haven’t been in much over the last couple of years, but it’s not totally unfamiliar to them. After all, they went to double overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa last year, so they know they can perform in do-or-die games.
But there’s a couple of major differences between this edition of the Pens and the last two that won titles. The biggest one is depth scoring. It’s been well documented how they used their depth up front to create mismatches against their opponents in their last two playoff runs. This time around, most of the damage is being done by one line.
Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist have been phenomenal this postseason, but they can’t do it on their own. To make matters worse, it’s clear that Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin aren’t healthy, so that means that they need even more from guys like Conor Sheary, Carl Hagelin, Riley Sheahan, Derick Brassard and Bryan Rust.
Those five players have combined for one assist in the first five games of this series. Yes, Hagelin missed three games because of an injury, but you get the point. They’re clearly too top-heavy right now.
Enter Daniel Sprong.
The 21-year-old had just two goals and one assist in eight games with the Penguins during the regular season, but he clearly has enough offensive upside to warrant a look.
In his first full season in the AHL, Sprong led the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in scoring with 32 goals and 65 points in 65 games. Jean-Sebastien Dea was second on the team in points, and despite playing five games more than Sprong, he had 15 less points.
“I think I grew a lot as a player,” Sprong said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I was excited about going down there after I got sent down and wanted to have a good second half. I thought as a team we had a good year as well. I’m excited about the year I had. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy.”
“I feel if I get thrown in, I’m ready. I have a lot of confidence with the year I had. If I do get the opportunity, I’ll be ready to go.”
As is the case with all young players, coaches tend to prefer guys that are more capable of playing a well-rounded game. Often times, experience is valued over offensive ability (just like the Ryan Donato situation in Boston during the playoffs).
It’s hard to criticize Mike Sullivan because he’s pushed all the right buttons since taking over as head coach. But he has to realize that this isn’t the same team he’s been dealing with over the last few seasons. They should still be confident in their ability to come back in this series, but they might need a shot in the arm to get it done.
It’s time for him to roll the dice on one of his youngsters.