Patric Hornqvist #72 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game Two of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 14, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan flipped right wings Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary in the third period of Game 5 against Columbus. Sheary was relegated to Nick Bonino's line. Hornqvist joined Sidney Crosby's unit.
Crosby and Jake Guentzel had a productive series skating with Sheary. But Sheary struggled.
Sheary had just two assists, was minus-3 and developed a lack of confidence evidenced by frequent clumsiness with the puck and ill-advised decision-making at both blue lines.
Hornqvist did better: Two goals, one assist and a plus-2 mark.
But statistics aren't at the heart of this debate. Whoever skates with Crosby changes that line's fundamentals and execution.
Sheary makes that line three of a kind. Crosby, Guentzel and Sheary play in very similar fashion. They prefer to attack off the rush. Cross-rink feeds and passes high in the zone are often utilized in attempting to unlock the opposing defense. This doesn't exclude working the puck down low, but do they do it enough?
With Hornqvist, Crosby and Guentzel do.
Hornqvist brings a straight-ahead element to Crosby's line. More time is spent below the hash marks. Hornqvist's net-front presence and physicality opens up space for Crosby down low, allowing the Penguins' captain to better ply his reluctant tag as hockey's best grinder ever. The line's style organically simplifies.
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong decision. Crosby's preferred complement is speed and nothing but, so he'd vote against Hornqvist (and has).
But if yesterday's practice is any indication, Hornqvist will open the Penguins' second-round series on Crosby's right wing. Sheary is an excellent talent in a bit of a bad patch. He just needs to regain some belief. Sheary will have to do so skating on Bonino's flank.
But bet on Sheary rejoining Crosby and Guentzel sooner, not later. Crosby has a need for speed.
There is no such debate with the Penguins' "other" top line.
Evgeni Malkin was electric in the first-round win over Columbus, racking up 11 points and generally overwhelming more shifts than not. The argument can be made that the current version of Malkin is the best ever, with all of his qualities in the right balance and execution, and with a high level of maturity providing the cherry on top.
Phil Kessel continues to amaze, excelling despite what appears to be lack of heightened intensity during hockey's most intense time. Kessel can march to the beat of any drummer he likes as long as he keeps averaging a point per game and a goal every other game in the playoffs.
Kessel doesn't lollygag, nor does he surge. He gives the same effort just about every shift. It works.
Bryan Rust is the wild card. His pedigree isn't overwhelming: Third-round pick in 2010. He's playing left wing, an unaccustomed position. He's mostly a ham-and-egger.
Except in the playoffs.
Rust has 10 goals in 28 postseason games over 2016 and 2017, including seven goals in nine elimination games. If you want a ticket home, get it from Rust.
If Carl Hagelin returns soon, Sullivan will have the option of reassembling the HBK line.
Now isn't the time, even though Sullivan prefers to spread Crosby, Kessel and Malkin (his primary offensive threats) over three lines. Malkin and Kessel are doing too well together. The playoffs are so often about hot hands.
Hagelin, Bonino and Sheary (or Hornqvist) would do just fine together. Although it limits T-shirt options. HBS? HBH?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).