One of the biggest observations in Game 1 was the Pens’ line adjustments.
Somewhere in the middle of the tilt, head coach Dan Bylsma took forward Beau Bennett off top-line duties, and placed him on Brandon Sutter’s third-line. Which was interesting, considering Bennett’s been on the first-line for the majority of the time he’s played this season.
However, with the Pens’ down 3-1, Bylsma knew he needed to make a change.
By pairing Bennett with Lee Stempniak and Sutter, Bylsma promoted Brian Gibbons up to Sidney Crosby’s unit, which altered the lineup’s landscape in a positive way. For one, Bennett was able to bring his scoring touch and top-six capabilities to a line that needed a boost, and second, Gibbons’ potential became maximized.
When general manager Ray Shero was pushing to acquire Ryan Kesler from the Vancouver Canucks back in early March, it became evident that the team missed the three-center model that helped them capture the Cup in 2009. And by nabbing Kesler, the Pens’ line effectiveness would be more proficient, given Kesler’s pedigree.
Since that trade never came to fruition, the team has had to find a way to generate quality scoring chances on the third-line. With Bennett and Stempniak, you have two skaters who’ve performed alongside Crosby and Chris Kunitz. That means, that with top-line experience, Sutter’s finally got a couple of bonafide offensive threats – something he hasn’t had consistently this season.
Bennett’s third-line slot means that power is now balanced all throughout the lineup. No doubt, Bennett’s a top-line guy at some point in the near future, but for the time being, he’s more valuable on the third, while Gibbons is more profitable on the first. And Gibbons has had prior experience on the first-line as well, which makes the transition easier to handle.
Gibbons is fast. Because he’s capable of keeping up with Crosby, and the team wants to magnify his skill-set, the best way to get the most out of him is if he’s on the first-line. Bennett’s slightly more established, due to the amount of NHL games in his repertoire. And it’s because of this that Bennett’s better suited for the third-line than Gibbons – he’s able to produce without marquee players.
In last year’s postseason, you can make the case that Pittsburgh’s third-line efficiency wasn’t Cup material. So, this time around, Bylsma is exercising measures early on, rather when it’s too late, to assure secondary proficiency.
Hat’s off to Bylsma though. This was a great move. When his team needed a spark, he did it the best way possible. Bylsma didn’t try to force anything that wasn’t working, and when it was all said-and-done, he reaped the rewards of a 1-0 series lead.
I also applaud Bylsma for using Gibbons in general. Despite his size, Gibbons is a tremendous catalyst. Gibbons’ speed really gives opposing teams’ fits on how to contain him. And he’s been manufacturing quality scoring chances all season long.
Expect a better performance from the team tonight in Game 2. Although I’m anticipating more line adjustments, Gibbons should receive the bulk of the work on the top-line.
Saturday’s matchup with Columbus can be seen on the NBC Sports Network, and is set to start at 7 p.m.