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Lineup question looms for Penguins

PITTSBURGH -– To split up the big boys or not?

That is a question Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma is pondering as his team looks to avoid blowing a 3-1 series lead and bowing out to the resurgent New York Rangers in Game 7 on Tuesday night.

For much of this back and forth series Bylsma has kept captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, another natural center, on the same line with Crosby’s regular left-winger Chris Kunitz.

The results have been mixed. Crosby has one goal in the series while Malkin has three, tied for the team lead. Perhaps the biggest reason Bylsma may consider going to a more traditional pattern with Malkin centering Jussi Jokinen and James Neal is that Neal has been ineffective in the series, scoring just once and adding two assists.

Bylsma noted that a few days ago there was discussion about putting Crosby and Malkin to produce offense, but now there is discussion about putting Malkin back with Neal to get more offense.

“I think tonight with the home matchup and the different opportunities that you have with the last change you may see a couple of different combinations in an effort to take advantage of the matchup maybe even post-icing or whatever get a push with certain guys on the ice and that may be more of a read in the game than just saying it’s going to be Crosby and Malkin together,” Bylsma said.

Despite losing two straight possible elimination games, Neal said this is a moment to be embraced.

“This is fun. This is what you play the game for. Obviously, we had a chance to close out the series in a couple of games but we have a chance tonight and you need to get excited for that and lay it all out on the line tonight,” Neal said Tuesday morning.

“You definitely want to have doubts going into a game. You want to be excited, you want to visualize good things you want to visualize scoring and making good plays and having an impact on a game and having an impact with your teammates,” he added.

Bylsma did not tip his hand during Tuesday’s morning skate, eschewing the traditional line rushes that can give some indication of what might be in store for the evening’s game.

Crosby was asked earlier about the pairings and, as you would expect, said it doesn’t matter who he plays with that he and Malkin need to be at their best in Game 7.

With Brooks Orpik expected to be out for the eighth time in the last nine games, look for the Penguins to go with the same lineup that was featured in the two most recent losses. However, with with defenseman Robert Bortuzzo struggling mightily it wouldn’t be surprising if he came out in favor of Deryk Engelland.

Forwards

Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin

Jussi Jokinen-Brandon Sutter-James Neal

Beau Bennett-Marcel Goc-Lee Stempniak

Brian Gibbons-Joe Vitale-Craig Adams

Defense parings

Kris Letang-Paul Martin

Matt Niskanen-Olli Maatta

Rob Scuderi-Robert Bortuzzo

Goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury

The Rangers did not skate Tuesday morning, following the pattern established when they were in Pittsburgh for Game 5. They went on to win that game 5-1, and Game 6 by a 3-1 count, so we don’t expect anything different from the Rangers in terms of their lineup for Tuesday night.

Forwards

Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-Rick Nash

Benoit Pouliot-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello

Carl Hagelin-Brad Richards-Martin St. Louis

Brian Boyle-Dominic Moore-Derek Dorsett

Defense pairings

Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi

Anton Stralman-Marc Staal

John Moore-Kevin Klein

Goalie: Henrik Lundqvist