By Sidney Mahan (@PuckSniper_3)
You guys don’t need me to tell you this, because you already know – good teams have four solid lines that are each capable of shifting the momentum in a game, and the Pittsburgh Penguins have exactly that.
With the Penguins a win away from the Stanley Cup Final, where the San Jose Sharks await an opponent, and a loss away from a longer summer than the players are hoping they’ll get, let’s take a look at how the team’s depth this year has helped set them apart from previous Penguin squads and got them to this point.
Well, when people look to specific players to step up in big moments and be clutch players, they’re obviously looking at the stars of the team to lead that effort. In this current roster, that would mean Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, and rookie stud Matt Murray.
Those guys have all done a good job so far, picking the big moments to make their best moves. Crosby has the game-winning goal in all three of the Penguins’ wins in the Conference Final so far, a huge step up from the previous round where he tallied no goals against the Washington Capitals. Evgeni Malkin has 13 points in 16 games, and came out in a must-win Game 6 with a strong, intense performance that can’t be done justice by his one credit on the scoresheet, a secondary assist. Phil Kessel, who wasn’t quite able to get the kind of regular-season production he was expected to get, has proven to be a huge asset for the Penguins these playoffs. In the PIT-TBL series, he leads all players with 4 goals. Through the 2016 Playoffs, he leads his team in goals (9) and points (18), leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that he’s been a major force for Pittsburgh in the campaign for the cup. Meanwhile, Letang has played his typically incredible defense and also had some big offensive moments, while Murray has won the love and respect of Penguins fans with several solid games to prolong the Pens’ playoff run.
Here’s the thing that the Penguins can feel good about, though – the superstars have helped, but they haven’t dominated. They don’t need to. One of the Penguins’ biggest advantages with the team they have this season compared to previous ones is that they have four scoring lines. Most teams have two or three. Pittsburgh has four.
The cool thing is, even when the Penguins were forced to do some major rearranging from their usual, default line combos, they still managed to produce some great results. When Malkin was unable to begin the playoffs due to an injury, the Penguins slotted Nick Bonino in as the second line center, in which he actually did a great job filling. He did such a good job that Malkin didn’t even automatically return to the second line when he came back. And we’ve seen some truly awesome lines born out of experimentation – most notably, the HBK line, of Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel, which has consistently come out in games and created some of the Pens’ best offensive chances nearly every shift. Now you move all the way down to our usual fourth line guys. You’re looking at a combo like Kuhnhackl-Cullen-Fehr. This line’s players have played incredibly well, and don’t be fooled by their slot in the lineup when you consider how well they’ve played. Kuhnhackl hasn’t appeared effective points-wise, posting only 5 points in 17 games played these playoffs, but that hasn’t reflected solid play on Kuhnhackl’s part, particularly in the neutral zone. I have consistently seen Kuhnhackl make smart, responsible decisions with the puck in the offensive zone, and making the right choice when it comes to either chipping the puck into the zone or making a move to get past the blue line. Cullen has showed up big a lot of times, and he’s proved it through some pretty fantastic play and production for a guy who at 39 years old is currently the oldest player on the Penguins. Seriously, he looks like he’s 25 years old out there. He has 6 points, including four goals, in these playoffs, but those goals have come at big times, with two of them being game-winning goals. Meanwhile, Fehr has been quiet points-wise, posting 3 points in 16 games, but has recently seen a rise in his play that shows him creating some great chances for himself and his teammates.
And, while everyone’s doing all that at one end of the ice, they’re all backchecking and helping out on defense on the other.
So all-in-all, I’ve been pretty damn happy with all of the forward lines for Pittsburgh. And yes, I’m super happy with our current defensive corps, even though I’m not focusing on them here.
I’d like to quickly address something that has come up a lot during these playoffs, largely because of Mike Milbury. Milbury has constantly advised head coach Mike Sullivan during intermissions to give the stars like Crosby and Malkin more time. This was largely during each player’s mini “slumps”, when Milbury felt that the ice time among the four forward lines was getting distributed too evenly. Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with him. But I can definitely understand why Sullivan feels comfortable with any one of his lines on the ice. That’s because he knows each and every one of them can make him proud in all three zones of the ice. If he did have a doubt that his team would be able to rely on every guy on the roster to make a win happen, then trust me, you would be seeing a lot more of 87 and 71 (although, especially in Evgeni Malkin’s case, that’s not always a good thing. See Josh Boulton’s great article on how ice time affect Malkin’s play here). But Coach Sully has faith in all of his players, and he knows that each of them has the potential to steal a game.
Having such good depth is not something the Penguins have had on their side over the last few seasons. For years, instead of dynamite young guys who have made an incredibly smooth transition from AHL to NHL and veterans who play hockey like they’re a few years younger, we’ve had guys like Craig Adams and Tanner Glass holding the fort farther down the lineup. Sure, those guys each had roles to play, but they weren’t offensive threats in the same way as we’re seeing this season. They weren’t close to being called as effective in the series as the top lines. To say a team really has four effective lines, those lines truly need to each have the potential to take charge of a game. You can’t say that for past squads. You can say it for this one. There’s a common list of reasons why people have explained the Pens’ success heading into and being in the playoffs this year. Words like resiliency, goal-scoring, shot-blocking, solid goaltending, and overcoming adversity keep coming up. But you know what else comes up? Depth. And for good reason. Because our fourth line’s better than your fourth line.