Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan did not concede that his third and fourth lines are driving the Penguins identity. The team likes to play fast, tenacious, and to steal one of Sullivan’s oft-used descriptors, “be hard to play against,” and in the first four games of the 2021-22 NHL season, the team has been just that.
And the third and fourth lines have been the biggest factor.
Center Teddy Blueger with Brock McGinn and a couple of different wingers have made the third line an offensive threat and defensive firewall. Brian Boyle, 36, not only earned a spot with the team out of training camp but has been a reliable pivot. The Penguins fourth line played nearly 10 minutes against the Dallas Stars, despite a 1-1- tie for most of the evening.
The scoring chances and the goals are coming when the Penguins grinders are on the ice. Tuesday night, Blueger, McGinn, and Zach Aston-Reese ate the Dallas Stars lunch and threw the apple back at them. The line had 16 shot attempts and allowed only three.
They dominated the scoring chance category against Dallas (9-2) and put one in the net when defenseman John Marino finished McGinn’s rebound after sustained offensive pressure.
“They’re an important part of it. There’s no doubt. I don’t know that they’re driving the identity. They’re a very important part of it because we want to be a team that’s hard to play against,” Sullivan replied to PHN after the game. “And those guys by nature are difficult to play against because they check hard, they reload, they get on the right side of the puck, they get above people, and they pay attention to a lot of the details…”
“And so they tend to play a simple game, and they’re effective at it,” Sullivan said.
That’s been a formula since Sullivan arrived. Not since the first year of the Mike Sullivan era (2015-16) have the Penguins been a healthy group. Severe injuries and surgeries to core players have dominated their seasons. Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, and Sidney Crosby have each missed months with surgery. It seems the blue line, no matter the personnel, is annually decimated by injury.
And yet, the Penguins win under the most adverse and difficult circumstances. They do it with grinding, simple play by players who are otherwise labeled bottom six or fourth line, and sometimes as depth players.
The Penguins scored only one goal on Tuesday. They popped five on Marc-Andre Fleury and the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday.
Boyle, Drew O’Connor, and McGinn were on the ice for two of the Pittsburgh Penguins goals. None of the “top six,” including Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen, or Jason Zucker, were on the ice for more than one. The Penguins second line, centered by Evan Rodrigues with Zucker and Kapanen, was shut out.
The Penguins tradition and culture are about superstar hockey. Since 1984, the best player in the world (or former best player in the world, now an all-time great), has dotted the Penguins roster. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still the core of this Penguins team.
Offense and great players are still on the marquee.
“I also think when we have a full complement of players, part of the fabric of the identity of this team is our ability to have a quick-strike attack. And with some of the guys we have out of our lineup, we may not be as threatening in that aspect of our game,” continued the Pittsburgh Penguins head coach. “That’s probably obvious, but I think right now we’re playing a simplified version of our identity, of our game, and we’re giving ourselves a chance to win each and every night.”
I’m sure I’ll circle back and ask Sullivan the same question in different ways later in the season. Book mark this moment regarding where Sullivan is on the identity of the team.
He essentially said the grind lines are playing to the system, being hard to play against, and the Penguins have a chance to win every night because of it. But he also said their identity would be different when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are at the top of the lineup.
But should it?
Especially when Evgeni Malkin returns, should things go back to “normal”?
There was little doubt that Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen developed a dominant presence on the ice last season before Malkin’s knee was torn to bits.
The dominating stretch by Malkin is too often overlooked when discussing his future. Full stop. Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Penguins playoff futility in the last three years cannot be overlooked either. The Penguins outplayed the New York Islanders, at least some parts of the Penguins lineup did, but the postseason was over in six games. They lasted four games in the 2020 bubble and four games in 2019.
Those shortcomings can’t be ignored.
Perhaps it’s time to embrace the simple.
“We like the way our team has progressed here. I love the energy and the attitude and compete level,” the head coach said Tuesday night. “But in this early part of the season, I think the players are playing extremely hard, and the collective effort I think has been noticeable, and that’s going to be an important element for us given the fact with some of the guys we have out of the lineup.”
Compete level. Collective play. Perhaps the Penguins should plug the talent into that identity rather than plugging the pluggers into the Penguins traditional identity.
It’s a thought. And it is undoubtedly one that players like Teddy Blueger, Zach Aston-Reese, Brock McGinn, and Drew O’Connor could force the Penguins to consider.
For now, the Penguins have a pretty, pretty good “bottom six.”