In case your eyes had popped out after defenseman Mike Matheson made a 50-foot pass to himself, that was Pittsburgh Penguins third line center Teddy Blueger who lit the lamp. The goal also marked the fourth game in a row that the newly-constituted Penguins third line with Zach Aston-Reese and Brandon Tanev put at least one on the scoreboard.
Lost in the shadow of Sidney Crosby and the angst over Evgeni Malkin is the Penguins third line.
If you haven’t been watching the Penguins stats closely, here is a surprise. Teddy Blueger is the Penguins’ fourth-leading scorer behind only Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel.
Not bad, eh?
And the line is defending the opposing team’s top lines. While chipping in offensively, the Penguins third line defended the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson line and the Nick Backstrom line. Thursday night, Blueger and co. were squarely up against Mathew Barzal, who has been filling the net this season.
The Penguins third line won each of the battles. And chipped in some offense.
“For the most part, the mindset doesn’t change. We just try to outwork and out-compete whoever we’re up against,” Blueger said. “With Barzal, you try to take away his speed. When he regroups, or on the breakout for them, you want to make sure you’re tight to them to not allow him to get the puck with speed.”
Blueger, 26, began the season where he ended the last, as the Penguins fourth-line center. Blueger was just happy to make it to the NHL, finally, after nearly three full seasons in the AHL. The 2012 Penguins second-round draft pick toiled in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after playing college hockey at Minnesota State.
In both cases, he improved in each subsequent season.
Blueger made the jump to the NHL at the end of the 2018-19 season. His speed and puck pressure were immediately obvious, but his offensive game appeared well suited for the Pittsburgh Penguins fourth line.
This season, he has three goals and six assists in 15 games. That’s scoring at a pace no third-line center has achieved since…Jordan Staal in the early part of the Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup era.
Aston-Reese, 25, is another late bloomer who slowly progresses at each level instead of bursting onto the scene. He improved each season at Northeastern University before becoming one of the NCAA scoring leaders and an undrafted free agent with the Penguins.
In his three-year career, which frequent and freak injuries have marred, Aston-Reese has had a couple of spurts of offensive production. In August, he had surgery on a nagging shoulder injury. Now, his assist on Thursday night means he has four points in four games (3g, 1a).
“Having surgery made me take a step back, thinking about why I’m always getting injured and what I can change,” Aston-Reese said on Tuesday. “I did change a few habits. I cleaned up my diet. I added some different things to training and taking care of my body.”
The winger looks like a different player, a little slimmer and a bit faster.
PHN has chatted with Aston-Reese in the past about different roles. He was seen as a potential power forward but then settled into a defensive specialist role last season. He scored only 13 points (7g, 6a) in 56 games but received Selke Trophy votes.
He liked the singularity of the fourth-line role. He had one job. Stop the other team from scoring, and he embraced it. However, he is finding third-line life suits him just fine.
“It’s a lot easier to get into the game when you get more ice time, when the blood is flowing, as opposed to sitting there for longer periods of time, then having to go out there and create some energy,” Aston-Reese said.
Lastly, the line is completed by the player they call Turbo. His growing mullet waves in the wind as the lightning-fast skater chases pucks and is top three in the NHL in hits with 71.
Brandon Tanev has also popped four goals and six points this season. That also puts the 29-year-old grinder on a career pace slightly above his previous best in 2018-19 with the Winnipeg Jets.
The line of unheralded players may include three fourth-line players or guys who needed a shot in a bigger role, but undeniably the sum is greater than the parts. Thursday night, the line had a 71% Corsi and had a 66% scoring chance ratio despite playing against one of the best players in hockey.
In the four games since Zach Aston-Reese returned, the line has been a powerhouse. It has a 61% Corsi, three goals-for but none against, 66% shots-for, 61.5% of scoring chances have been on their sticks and not the opponents, and they have a 64% high-danger scoring chance ratio against opponents, too.
They’ve done it all while starting just 38% of their shifts in the offensive zone. Translated: they’re defending and getting to the offensive zone. All advanced stats, according to our friends at NaturalStatTrick.com.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third line shuts down opponents like Ovechkin and Barzal, they are successful. Add a healthy amount of offense, and suddenly the trio is the Penguins’ secret weapon.