Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan spent a significant portion of his team’s choppy season in search of healthy bodies. Ten players — including stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and goaltender Matt Murray — missed at least 10 games, a spate of injuries the Penguins survived to reach the playoffs for a 13th straight time.
With a first-round matchup with the New York Islanders looming, Sullivan now finds himself with a rare luxury: options.
Forward Zach Aston-Reese and defenseman Brian Dumoulin skated with their teammates on Monday, putting Pittsburgh at nearly full strength heading into Wednesday’s Game 1 on Long Island. Aston-Reese hasn’t played since suffering a lower-body injury against Boston on March 10. He watched from the press box as the third and fourth lines flourished without him, one of the reasons Pittsburgh put together a 7-3-3 sprint to the finish that extended the NHL’s longest postseason streak.
Aston-Reese played well in 43 games, scoring eight goals and adding nine assists with a plus-12 rating. Yet he knows he might find himself one of the odd men out when the puck drops against the Islanders.
“Guys have been playing really well from top to bottom,” Aston-Reese said. “(The third line) has been firing. (The fourth line) has been playing really well. That’s not a decision I’m going to have to make. It’s going to be a tough one for the coaches.”
Sullivan will welcome the choice since he didn’t have to make it for long stretches. The last time Pittsburgh was anywhere close to this healthy was in early February.
While Dumoulin — who sustained a lower-body injury against Carolina on March 31 — figures to plug right back in on defense once he’s ready, Aston-Reese’s situation is more uncertain. He took significant strides in his first full season in the NHL, at least when he wasn’t hurt. A finger injury forced him to miss a month. He returned for 13 games before going down again. Aston-Reese chalked both issues to simple “bad luck.”
Maybe, but in his absence, others shined. Now the niche Aston-Reese carved out for himself as a high-energy complement on the bottom six might be gone. Garrett Wilson, Dominik Simon and Teddy Blueger all made an impact when given an opportunity.
Sullivan, whose line combination methodology remains a bit of a mystery more than three years into his successful tenure in Pittsburgh, allowed there are many factors that affect how he approaches playing time. The list includes the opponent and chemistry, intangibles not always easily discerned.
“The role players, we’ll make decisions based on how we think our team is playing and which group of players gives us the best chance to win,” Sullivan said. “That’s the question we try to answer best we can as a coaching staff.”
Whichever group Sullivan settles on, the Penguins figure to have a serious advantage over the Islanders when it comes to experience. Pittsburgh hasn’t missed the postseason since 2007, a run that includes three Stanley Cups, including back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017. New York, by contrast, has won just a single playoff series in the last quarter-century.
Though the Penguins insist experience won’t matter when things get going at Nassau Coliseum, the fact Sullivan gets a chance to pick and choose isn’t something they’ll take for granted. Health is finicky. It can disappear in an instant. For now Pittsburgh has it, something that gives it depth few can match.
“Balance is important to have success in the playoffs,” Sullivan said. “Every line has to have a conscience on both sides of the puck. We’re trying to look at our personnel and come up with combinations we think meet (those) criteria.”