PITTSBURGH — Coach Mike Sullivan’s willingness to switch up his lines in light of an unwelcome absence was rewarded against the Penguins’ hapless intrastate rivals to the east.
With Nick Bonino sidelined on a week-to-week basis with a lacerated kidney, Sullivan shuffled up both his bottom and top sixes en route to a 5-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday evening at PPG Paints Arena. The strategy worked like a charm; the third line capitalized on the Penguins’ second shot of the game, but it was no ordinary bottom-six player who got Pittsburgh on the board.
Rickard Rakell, who was dropped down from right wing on Sidney Crosby’s line to the same position on the third group, struck gold. Recent acquisition Mikael Granlund showcased some nifty passing, locating Marcus Pettersson on the opposite side of the ice during a solid shift by the third line in which the Penguins possessed the puck in the Flyers’ zone for what felt like as long as the drive to Philadelphia on the Pennsylvania turnpike.
Pettersson let it rip and Rakell deflected the puck off the goal’s upper left 90 before it trickled into the net.
Rakell was the first top-six wing Sullivan dropped down to the bottom six this season; Jake Guentzel, Rust and Jason Zucker have all been exempt from the practice. Mired in a scoring slump, Rakell finally benefitted from some puck luck alongside two new linemates.
While Sullivan switched up his lines in response to Bonino’s injury, he kept his power-play units intact. His conviction in his special teams was rewarded as well. The Penguins’ power play had only converted on 14.3% of its opportunities since the All-Star break entering Saturday, but they’ve been expected to score the fifth-most goals per power play of any team in the NHL this season, per Sportlogiq.
One of those hypothetical goals finally manifested in the second period. An errant Tyson Foerster twig caught Brian Dumoulin’s mouth and the former received a double-minor for high-sticking. Crosby quickly put an end to the first of the power play’s two legs, roofing a shot over Carter Hart to put the Penguins up 2-1.
The floodgates then opened in the third period. Zucker stayed hot, deflecting in another Pettersson shot from the point in the late stages of the third period to double Pittsburgh’s advantage. Jake Guentzel added an empty-net goal. And even when Hart returned to his post, Granlund must’ve thought it was still an empty net to register his first goal as a Penguin.
The Flyers’ sole goal came courtesy of a wicked wrister from Kieffer Bellows, who tied the game up at one midway through the first period. He found a soft spot on Casey DeSmith’s right side, sneaking the puck underneath the goalie’s blocker and just above his right pad before it cleanly saucered into the net.
DeSmith was otherwise stout in the victory, not allowing any goals over the ensuing 50 minutes of action. He even made an improbable save during a third-period Flyers power play, using his stick to deflect an Owen Tippett shot bound for some twine into a different kind of netting, that behind the Penguins’ goal.
If not for DeSmith’s well-placed paddle, Tippett would’ve had Philadelphia’s equalizer. Instead, his timely save was a turning point as the Penguins’ trio of third-period goals came just a handful of minutes after.
— In addition to dropping Rakell to the third group, Sullivan brought Rust back up to Crosby’s line. Rust has gone back and forth between the first and second lines this season, spending most of his time with the second since the all-star break.
— Alex Nylander, who was once again an emergency recall on Friday, skated in his second career Penguins game at right wing on Evgeni Malkin’s line. He also operated on the second line from the midway point of Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Islanders onward despite beginning that game with the third.
— Jeff Carter was bumped down from the third line to man the middle for the fourth. Mikael Granlund centered the third line for the second time in four games since being acquired from the Nashville Predators. Carter, who has primarily operated at center this season, skated to Granlund’s right on Thursday.
— Crosby’s goal gives him 53 in his career against the Flyers, the most he’s logged against a singular team, per StatMuse. His 53 scores has come over 82 games, two more goals than his career-best 51 during the entirety of the 2009-10 campaign.
— Zucker has now scored in three straight games. In the last seven contests, Zucker has eight goals.
— Pierre-Olivier Joseph was a healthy scratch for the second game in a row. Dmitry Kulikov once again filled Joseph’s spot on the third defensive pairing with Jan Rutta.
— Chad Ruhwedel was also a scratch. He hasn’t played since Feb. 23 after being a mainstay in the Penguins’ lineup for much of this season due to a rash of injuries to their defensemen.
10— Rakell’s score, his 22nd of the season, ended a 10-game goalless streak for the winger, his longest since joining the Penguins via Anaheim last March. Prior to Saturday, Rakell had last scored on Feb. 17, doing so twice in a 5-4 loss to the Islanders.
The Penguins’ second of back-to-back matinee games is on tap Sunday afternoon as they’ll play host to the New York Rangers. Sunday will mark the first of three encounters between the Penguins and Rangers over a seven-day stretch. The next two contests between the Penguins and Rangers will be in Manhattan.