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Penguins Roundup: Practice 4-18-14

Friday, 04.18.2014 / 3:51 PM / 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs Coverage
By Michelle Crechiolo
After having the day off Thursday following their Game 1 win on Wednesday, the Pens returned to the ice for practice on Friday at CONSOL Energy Center.

Head coach Dan Bylsma made a number of in-game adjustments to his lines in the 4-3 victory, and those tweaked combinations were what the Pens used during rushes on Friday. They were as follows…

Kunitz-Crosby-Gibbons
Jokinen-Malkin-Neal
Bennett-Sutter-Stempniak
Glass-Vitale-Adams
Pyatt and Megna the extras.

* The biggest changes were Brian Gibbons skating on right wing of the first line and Beau Bennett skating on left wing of the third line. Bylsma gave a detailed explanation on the reasoning behind those moves here.

The D-pairings remained the same:
Orpik-Martin
Maatta-Niskanen
Scuderi-Letang
Bortuzzo-Engelland

The Penguins practiced with the following power-play units:
Crosby-Kunitz-Neal
Niskanen-Malkin

Bennett-Sutter-Jokinen
Martin-Letang

Niskanen was clutch working the point on the man-advantage in Pittsburgh’s Game 1 victory over Columbus. With the team down 3-1 after giving up a shorthanded goal following a Letang turnover at the blue line, Niskanen went on the ice with the second unit for the next shift and his shot from the point was tipped perfectly in the high slot by Bennett to get the Pens within one. Pittsburgh then received another power play just 39 seconds later, and Niskanen took the ice with the first unit (replacing Letang). Just 10 seconds in, he again got the puck on his stick at the blue line and let it rip. That time, Niskanen’s shot went cleanly through to tie it 3-3.

That willingness to get the puck to the net, said Niskanen, is what is required from him when he’s skating with that top unit.

“I shoot the puck a lot, I seem to be in that shooter’s position a lot. And to be honest, I think that’s why I’m out there,” he said after Friday’s practice. “We’ve got a lot of other guys that can make good passes, set people up and stuff. I don’t have the elite talent that some of our other players do, so the reason that I’m out there is to kind of deliver the puck to the net and create chances that way. I think that one thing that that does is you see a lot of our best plays on the power play, they come off a shot first, because you get their box moving then and you make your plays when they’re out of position scrambling for a rebound. If the penalty kill is set up perfect, it’s tough to make plays. You’ve got to deliver the puck to the net and then make plays off the shot.”

That shot-first mentality isn’t easy to have when you’re surrounded by such an incredible amount of elite talent. When Niskanen is on the point, to his left is Crosby and on his right is Malkin. It’s tempting to want to give them the puck, especially since they are always yelling for it. But Niskanen has learned to fight that temptation and do the right thing with the puck, which is getting it to the net and letting the play unfold from there.

“I think a couple years ago when I first got that opportunity to play with those guys, that’s the first thing in your head, is that you want to give them the puck all the time,” Niskanen said. “A lot of times it’s a good play, but teams also do favor them. They shade to their area of the ice and they try to take those guys away. I’ve tried to as best I could just make the right play regardless of who’s on the power play and who I’m playing with. But it is tempting to give them the puck because of their talent.”

* While they practiced with the same first unit on Friday, Bylsma said to expect a number of different looks depending on the situation in the game – especially now that virtually all of the power-play personnel are healthy.

In Game 1 alone, Bylsma used three total top-unit looks: the first had Letang on the point with four forwards, the second had Niskanen on the point with four forwards and the third used two defensemen (Niskanen and Martin in that particular case) with three forwards.

“Throughout the year with the power play and the alignments and the situations, some of them are born of necessity,” Bylsma explained. “We didn’t have every player for every game. So seeing Paul Martin with four forwards, seeing Kris Letang with four forwards, you’re seeing Matt Niskanen with four forwards.

“Going into the game now, we’ve practiced and are ready for probably as many four different alignments. Having Matt Niskanen as the defenseman with the four forwards is something we’ve done for 30-plus games this year, so it wasn’t like that one was borne out of something completely different. We’re going into the game, you think you’re ready for really three of those possibilities. As many as three and maybe four you might get to in the game. Last game, it was three. We saw Kris and Matt and then the two defensemen later in the game.”

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