Mike Sullivan pulled a fast one Sunday in Philadelphia. It also might end up being a long-lasting one.
After instructing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to take the Game 3 warmup as they have recently, with each star to his own line, Sullivan put Malkin and Kessel together to start the game, thus leaving Derick Brassard to anchor the third unit without a bonafide sniper on his right wing.
Lo and behold! When 60 minutes were said and done, Brassard’s line with Conor Sheary on the left and Bryan Rust on the right was the Penguins’ best possession line at even strength. The victorious visitors accounted for 62 percent of the shot attempts when that trio was on the ice. The Malkin-Kessel-Carl Hagelin combo wasn’t bad either, at 53 percent.
Why is this a big deal?
Well, since the trade pickup of Brassard nearly two months ago, the Penguins have been searching for the most effective combinations for their forward lines. The most significant pivot point has been whether Kessel and Brassard should play together, thus giving the Penguins the ideal Sullivan constantly strives for: Three-line scoring balance.
Brassard admitted Sunday that his “legs weren’t there” in Games 1 and 2, since he was coming back from a five-game absence due to injury. Maybe ‘Big Game Brass’ simply needed a couple of games to find himself again.
“I know I can be good at this time of year,” Brassard said Sunday. “Today we had a different look with the lines. Trying to build chemistry with some of the guys.”
Looking For Magic
While Brassard’s injury prevented the Penguins from achieving the largest sample size possible, Kessel and Brassard didn’t light it up when tied together in the regular season, with a 47 percent shot share at five-on-five play while outscoring opponents 8-7.
That’s fine, but not exactly reminiscent of the ‘HBK Line’ two years ago. What’s more, Brassard has played much more in his own zone than the Penguins would like, with a regular-season shot share (48.6 percent) that was the team’s worst among top-nine forwards. So, when Brassard ends up topping the charts in productive possession in Game 3, it merits looking to see if there’s anything repeatable.
Sheary has also struggled to drive play this season, so there’s probably not much to mine there. However, it turns out that Rust has brought out the best in Brassard in their short time together.
Brassard and Rust played just 31 of a possible 152 even-strength minutes together during the regular season, but they produced an outstanding 70 percent shot share and a 68 percent scoring-chance share. Those results aren’t sustainable in modern hockey, but they could be an indication of real chemistry between the two.
In fact, there’s no one even close to Rust in terms of helping Brassard play to the top of his abilities. Literally no one among the Penguins’ forward group who has played more than 10 minutes with Brassard — regular season plus playoffs — has a positive shot share with him. Rookie Dominik Simon comes the closest at 50 percent.
It’s not that Brassard has been utterly invisible in black and gold. He’s been quite effective on the power play in the playoffs, in fact, contributing a goal Sunday to go with a beauty of an assist in Game 1.
That rise to prominence in special teams has been well-timed, with the Penguins’ top power-play unit occasionally falling into bad habits in this series against the Flyers.
“We think he’s getting better with every game,” Sullivan said of Brassard on Monday. “We really liked his game prior to the injury. We’re hoping he can continue to improve from here.”
But special teams is a bonus with Brassard. Although he found himself on the ice in Crosby’s usual power-play spot for his goal in Game 3, he’s likely going to keep picking up table scraps from the big boys in those situations. Where Brassard can really make a difference is at even strength.
As I wrote Monday, the Penguins have been solid in that category thus far in this series, but it’s been mostly the top guns who have carried the scoring burden so far, keyed by Crosby’s seven points. With Patric Hörnqvist out for Game 4, perhaps Wednesday night is the perfect time for Brassard’s line to pick up the pace.
If past precedent is any guide, Rust will be riding shotgun should Brassard get his motor going.