As injuries have set in the past three weeks, particularly on the blue line, the Penguins have been forced to mix and match all but one of their defensive pairings.
Douglas Murray (above) and Matt Niskanen.
Murray, acquired in a trade with the Sharks last month, has spent most of the first eight games with the Penguins on the left side of the team's third defensive pairing during five-on-five play with Niskanen who has manned the right side. Since they have been teamed up, they have allowed only one even-strength goal as a defensive pairing.
When asked why the pairing hasn't been broken up despite numerous injuries, head coach Dan Bylsma explained, "It's a pair we've wanted to give time to and keep together as a possibility of what we might see in the postseason."
Yesterday, Murray (AKA "Crankshaft") and Niskanen (AKA "Nisky") talked about their new partnership.
Have you've developed chemistry thus far?
"Yeah. It’s gone pretty well. He’s a pretty easy guy to play with. You know exactly where he’s going to be. He’s very physical obviously. Everybody knows about that. We see to get out of our own quick and get the puck up ice to the forwards as quick as possible. It’s worked out so far. We seem to complement each other very well."
During a 4-1 loss to the Sabres, April 2, Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta attempted to chip and chase the puck up the right wing. Murray knocked him off the puck with a check and that allowed you to collect it and skate it out of danger. Is that by design?
"Ideally, with our strengths, that’s what we’d like to happen. He can take the man and I’ll swoop in and get the puck and get it going the other way. But it doesn’t always happen that way. You’ve just got to read and react. There’s going to be times where it’s the opposite where I have to create the turnover or force a bad dump or take the man and he has to retrieve the puck. It depends on what side it’s on."
Earlier this season, you played with Kris Letang and had to operate as the stay-at-home partner while he took offensive chances. Are you allowed to take more offensive chances now with Murray as the stay-at-home partner?
"Yeah. You know exactly where he’s going to be. He’s going to be in a perfect defensive position at all times. If an opportunity presents itself where I can be a little bit more aggressive up ice and be a fourth man, I think have a little bit more of a green light with him because I know he’s going to be there all the time. In that regard, it’s a nice compliment to me where I can use my strengths as a player and get up and be involved more."
Have you ever played with a defensive partner this big?
Not that big. [Former Stars defenseman] Mark Fistric would be the closest. He was real heavy defenseman like that. Real physical, strong. But he’s on a whole other level, ‘Crankshaft’ is. It’s a pretty unique situation where if there’s a physical confrontation he wins every single one. It’s a nice thing to have.
Note: Fistric, now with the Oilers, is listed as 6-foot-2, 233 pounds. Murray is listed as 6-foot-3, 245 pounds.
How vital are communications on the ice with a new defensive partner?
He knows how to play the game but systems-wise on how we want to do things. Just little reminders. Faceoff players, where we’re going, assignments, just little reminders. I know that helped me when I first came here. You know it. You’ve been told by the coaches but things are happening fast in the game. He’s a smart guy. He figures out pretty quick. I don’t have to say too much but I try to help as much as I can.
Have you had to instruct him on how to defend against certain players in the Eastern Conference considering he rarely played teams in the East while with the Sharks?
"He’s been really good at asking questions about that. He talks with other defensemen and [assistant coach] Todd Reirden a lot about the other team’s lineups. Guys that he doesn’t know. Whether they have speed or they’re physical or something that they do. Pull-up plays a lot or reverse shoulder down low. Guys around the league have tendencies. If he doesn’t know, he does a good job of asking to find out."
Have you developed chemistry so far with Niskanen?
"It’s always a work in progress but definitely. I think he’s a great guy to read off of. He has a sound game. He has a good pattern that a [defensive] partner likes. He gets available [for passes] and is in position and it’s easier to read off a guy like that."
Is Niskanen comparable to anyone you've played with before?
"No. He obviously has offense to his game. They tend to be a little wilder, those offensive guys, more towards the [Kris] Letang style. You can’t really [call him] a defensive guy either because he has that playmaking offensive side. A little mixture maybe. But no one in particularly I can think of."
Is this a classic pairing which features a stay-at-home defenseman like yourself and a guy who can take some offensive chances such as Niskanen?
"Absolutely. I don’t think he’s a very risky offensive guy which I like. But it’s no doubt when you look at us he’s more offensive than me. I don’t think anyone questions that."
During a 4-1 loss to the Sabres, April 2, Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta attempted to chip and chase the puck up the right wing. You knocked him off the puck with a check and that allowed Niskanen to collect it and skate it out of danger. Is that by design?
"I always try to be physical, especially with a guy like that tries to be physical with our guys. Somebody I would maybe go after a little bit extra to slow him down for running around with our guys. The play was just such, it wouldn’t matter if it was Kaleta or somebody else. I want to protect the puck physically and then have ‘Nisky’ picking up the puck or a forward coming in there to create space and have him skate it out."
How vital are communications on the ice when you are working with a new parnter?
It’s very important. I think you can do a lot communicating on the bench between [shifts]. Communications is always important on ice but also talking on how you want to solve different situations on the bench is important as well.
Have you had to ask questions about Eastern Conference players and teams, especially since you rarely played them as a member of the Sharks?
No we don’t but I’ve still been in the league a long time. We have I think an advantage coming from the west to the east which everybody [doesn’t] realize here. The west is a lot more familiar with the east than the east is with the west. We arrive at the rink for our games and we have all the east games on our TVs. It’s way easier for us to keep track of players and how different guys play.
(Photos: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images; Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)