PITTSBURGH - As general manager Ray Shero predicted months ago, Pascal Dupuis was impossible to replace for the Penguins. That was true until Marcel Goc returned from a month-long absence because of an ankle injury.
Goc played fewer than 11 minutes in the Penguins' 3-1 victory over Columbus on Saturday night. His presence may have changed everything.
Without Goc, a center, coach Dan Bylsma could not have confidently taken a shot at overloading the top line by playing Evgeni Malkin to the right of left winger Chris Kunitz and center Sidney Crosby. Were it not for Goc, Bylsma would not be seriously considering deploying that top line again Monday night, when the Penguins try to wrap up the best-of-seven first-round series at Nationwide Arena.
“Marcel Goc is not really a fourth-line center,” Bylsma said. “He's higher than that. To be able to slide (him) up to play between (wingers) Beau Bennett and Lee Stempniak — that was a big part of feeling comfortable with the (Crosby-Malkin) situation.”
Ideally, Malkin would anchor the second line with wingers Jussi Jokinen and James Neal. However, the Penguins are in a situation that is neither ideal nor normal.
They have no suitable replacement for Dupuis on the top line, and with Goc's return they have seven forwards who either are natural centers or comfortable playing in the middle.
Each of those forwards — Crosby, Malkin, Jokinen, Goc, Joe Vitale, Brandon Sutter and Craig Adams — dressed for Game 5. All but Adams took a faceoff, but Malkin and Jokinen combined for only three draws.
Mostly, Malkin and Jokinen were used as wingers. Centering the four lines were (in order): Crosby, Sutter, Goc and Vitale.
That might be the way for Bylsma to go at center going forward.
Sparking Crosby and Malkin — each without a goal against Columbus, and in the playoffs since Round 2 last postseason — is critical if the Penguins are to make a deep run. They have combined for nine points, all on assists, with six of those of the secondary variety.
Five years ago on the Stanley Cup run, Malkin (34) and Crosby (31) became the only NHL players since 1996 to each top 30 points in a postseason. The season before, when the Penguins reached the Cup Final, Crosby (27 points) and Malkin (22) were first and fifth overall among playoff scorers.
Losing Dupuis to a blown-out knee Dec. 23 did not cost Crosby the regular-season scoring title, but his production — along with that of Kunitz — dipped as the Penguins searched for a replacement.
Bennett opened the playoffs in Dupuis' old spot, but he lacks the speed Dupuis used to win puck races. Winger Brian Gibbons replaced Bennett, and his speed had resulted in scoring chances and drawn penalties — but he is injured (upper body), and he lacks Dupuis' finishing ability.
Malkin can win puck races, force the issue and finish. He is arguably the second-best center on the planet, but for these Penguins he might just be the element they have sought since Christmas — Dupuis' replacement.
Goc's return made that possible for Game 5 and likely Game 6, so all the Penguins need is for Malkin to sign off on the move.
He has blessed it, actually.
“They wanted to be together, to go after it,” Bylsma said of Crosby and Malkin. “We had a lot of opportunities to do that (in Game 5), and we did.”
(Staff writer Josh Yohe contributed. Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.)