PITTSBURGH — Embattled Pittsburgh Penguins center Derick Brassard has borne the brunt of criticism stemming from the Penguins third line struggles. Sunday night, Brassard and Phil Kessel broke free despite the Penguins loss. Finally.
Brassard scored his seventh goal of the season but more importantly, it was a feed directly from linemate Phil Kessel, at even strength. The goal marked the
first second time this season the pair directly hooked up for a goal. In 41 previous games, neither had a primary assist on a goal by the other.
Hookups between the pair have been rarer than good movies winning Golden Globes. This season, Brassard had appeared on Kessel’s scoring log just three times prior. Kessel has 46 points (17g, 29a) in 41 games, yet just three of those points share any credit with Brassard. The goal was Brassard’s first since he scored two on Dec. 27.
Sunday morning, PHN began to delve into the Penguins third line struggles. Brassard has tried to deflect questions about the line by offering a running joke, “the lines could change tomorrow.” But the lines have been stable for several weeks, now. And Brassard especially had high hopes for Sunday night while acknowledging their struggle.
“I think we could probably do a better job offensively. I mean you’re facing a different opponent every night it’s always going to be different,” conceded Brassard when PHN asked specifically about him and his linemates. “But yeah I would think we’re looking for us tonight to be maybe just a little bit more dangerous offensively.”
The third line was dangerous. Kessel and Tanner Pearson were each on the ice for 10 scoring chances. Pearson tied for a team-high four shots on goal, and he had a few Grade A chances.
While Sullivan rightly praised the line after the game Sunday night, he went into more in-depth Sunday morning about their deficiencies, even if he didn’t specifically phrase them as deficiencies.
“I think a lot of it just starts with simplicity and being quick to pucks and puck support and staying close in the offensive zone,” Sullivan said. “And in doing a lot of the little things and paying attention to the details where they can work together.”
That’s Sullivan adding the positive spin about how the can improve. If you’d like to know why the line hasn’t produced, those are the reasons–they have not done those things. And the responsibility doesn’t rest on one player. Puck support requires multiple players, as does Sullivan’s catchphrase, “paying attention to details.”
The line has scuffled. The goal was Brassard’s first point in four games. Kessel has scored at 5v5 but it was with different linemates as he or they lingered after a line change.
“It’s so hard to do it with just one person or even two on a line for that matter. It takes a whole line or a whole unit of five to have success. And so you know I think just a little bit more cooperative play, stay a little bit closer, hanging on to pucks and then it just boils down to execution,” Sullivan explained.
Brassard scored 46 points (21g, 26a) last season split between the low scoring Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins. He has just 13 points in 33 games this season. Kessel has also not been productive with Brassard (just five goals-for in over 135 minutes at 5v5 play). When paired, their Corsi is a whopping 37 percent.
A 37 percent Corsi isn’t bad. It’s laughably bad. But the Penguins are married to the line. Dominik Simon and Patric Hornqvist make Evgeni Malkin better than Kessel does, so the Malkin-Kessel pairing is probably defunct. However, the story may yet have a happy ending.
“I thought it was one of their better games. You know they I thought they did a better job supporting one another coming out in the break out in the offensive zone,” Sullivan praised after the loss to Chicago Sunday night. ” They stayed closer together. They had more zone time. This is the more zone time they’ve had.”
“That’s what we envisioned when we put those guys together the three really good players they’ve got they all have offensive instincts. You know Pearson is a guy that’s good in the battle areas. He goes to the net. You know Phil’s [sic] dangerous off the rush. He’s got a good shot can pass the puck and embrace a pretty good playmaker, so they have the makings of being a very good line. I thought they were good tonight.”
Brassard was also upbeat.
“I felt pretty good with the way we played,” Brassard almost smiled. “It was fun for our line to chip in offensively.”
Brassard is an intense, serious sort. He offered to vacate his natural position of center to be a bigger part of the Penguins team. The diminished role has not come easily to a player known as “Big Game Brass” for his work pushing the New York Rangers to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and the Ottawa Senators to the 2017 Eastern Conference Final.
The Penguins will have stiff competition in the Eastern Conference. Washington, Toronto and Tampa Bay all roll four lines, which are dangerous. A line which yields 63 percent of shots against won’t get it done. If Brassard and Kessel can zig together and zag together, they’ll have a lot more fun chipping in offensively.
And the Penguins will breathe a lot easier. Finally.
Editors Note: PHN incorrectly noted Brassard’s goal was the first primary assist from Kessel. It was the second one. It was a research error and we corrected the mistake.