The Penguins aren’t likely to catch Washington in the standings. Dropping lower than fourth place in the Metro Division (and the top wild card in the Eastern Conference) looks impossible. Getting that wild card actually seems favorable: The Atlantic Division winner would be a lesser foe than either the New York Rangers or Columbus.
So, the Penguins basically have 22 exhibition games left. Coach Mike Sullivan can test every combination and consider every decision.
His biggest decision may be whether to use the HBK line in the playoffs.
Based on last year’s Stanley Cup run, it’s a no-brainer: Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel totaled 20 goals and 56 points in 24 playoff games.
But will Hagelin and Bonino produce like that again? Probably not.
Hagelin has six goals and 14 assists in 55 games this season. That’s .36 points per game. That’s below Hagelin’s career average of .47 points. Bonino has nine goals and 14 assists in 59 games this season. That’s .39 points per game. That’s below Bonino’s career average of .45 points.
Hagelin and Bonino are still valuable assets. Hagelin’s speed and forecheck are unparalleled. Bonino is a solid third-line center.
But is it worth gambling that HBK can again combust come playoff time?
It might be.
The value of HBK is in the matchups. When Sullivan puts Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kessel on separate lines, one gets a favorable matchup, one gets a tolerable matchup and only one gets a difficult matchup. Crosby always gets the difficult matchup, which poses minimal problem because he’s Crosby.
When Kessel skates on a line with, say, Malkin, the opposing coach doesn’t have to pick his poison.
But Malkin and Kessel playing together is a dynamic combination, and the two have ignited when united.
Injury, of course, always dictates.
Kessel seems a sure thing no matter who he’s on a line with. He has 21 goals and 35 assists in 59 games.
Twenty-six of Kessel’s points have come on the power play: A high percentage, but that’s OK. The Penguins have 44 power-play goals, second-most in the NHL. A man-advantage unit that clicks is vital to postseason success, and Kessel is an effective reset point and playmaker on the left half-wall.
Kessel’s style is odd. He doesn’t dodge contact, but certainly doesn’t seek it: Witness just nine hits to his name this season. He rarely shoots one-timers or slap shots, and his wrong-footed release is among hockey’s strangest.
But Kessel does what’s needed. Sullivan mused that Kessel needed to score more, and Kessel responded with seven goals in nine games.
Pittsburgh is perfect for Kessel: The team and town have embraced his quirks, and he’s responded with productivity. Sullivan doesn’t try to make Kessel do what he doesn’t. He emphasizes Kessel maximizing what he does.
Plenty of factors will figure into the line combinations for the playoffs. Can rookie Jake Guentzel handle a top-six role? If not, can Chris Kunitz do so at 37? Patric Hornqvist with Crosby works, but will Crosby ever think so?
Regarding HBK, it’s all about Kessel. Kessel must produce 5-on-5. Can he do so skating with Hagelin and Bonino? Somebody has to be on the other end of Kessel’s goals and assists. If Malkin centers Kessel, does the Penguins’ bottom-six scoring disappear?
Sullivan needs to find some answers. He has 22 games to do it.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).