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‘That’s It’: Penguins Lines Have Team Finding Their Identity, Finally

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Pittsburgh Penguins Nick Bjugstad
PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 01: Nick Bjugstad #27 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates in the first period during the game against the Ottawa Senators at PPG PAINTS Arena on February 1, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire)

It has happened only a couple of times this season: The Pittsburgh Penguins rolled four lines and all four lines looked good. Tuesday night against the New Jersey Devils, all four Penguins lines generated scoring chances, created pressure and until late in the game, all four lines had a positive Corsi.

Such instances were rarer than full moons when Derick Brassard was the Penguins third line center. A strong Brassard performance happened a few times but those instances coincided with the Malkin-Kessel struggles or just Malkin struggling. After putting the lines together as part of a “Plan B” on Sunday, they clicked.

And clicked Tuesday night again.

“When we talk about team identity, how we’re trying to play and what Penguins hockey looks like, that’s it,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “You know it’s defending up the ice with our puck pursuit and it’s it’s a five-man unit and it’s cooperative play.”

The Penguins took the puck in the second period and never gave it back. They had two-thirds of the scoring chances in the first and second period and scored a pair of goals in each frame before receding into a more defensive, counter attack stance in the third period of their 4-3 win over New Jersey.

Don’t say it was “just” New Jersey, either. That “just” New Jersey team without Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall pasted the Penguins 6-3, “just” a couple of weeks ago and pushed the Penguins to be better in the first period, Tuesday.

The Penguins Lines

The Penguins passed the eye test with flying colors.

Bryan Rust continued to be Sidney Crosby’s next version of Pascal Dupuis. Rust is all over the puck, his speed creates pressure on the defense and space for Crosby and Jake Guentzel to work. And, Rust is developing more finish. His sneaky one-timer dribbled past Keith Kincaid. The shot was quick and it surprised Kincaid how quickly Rust snapped it.

And Guentzel had the space to rush from end-to-end as the New Jersey defense had to keep an eye on Crosby and Rust who bull-rushed the center of the ice.

Zach Aston-Reese is on top of his game. It’s scary think he may be getting better, too. He scored again, Tuesday night and was heavy on the puck. His low zone work has allowed Malkin to play on the midwall and crash the net, too. Having Aston-Reese crash and bang is also incentivizing Malkin to simplify his game.

The line faltered late as the Penguins protected the two-goal lead but the Malkin line is rarely a Corsi winner. Kessel has become the weak link though his slump won’t last forever.

Fewer turnovers from Malkin would be victory enough. Aston-Reese is doing everything else, too.

“Ever since he’s he’s been a Penguin when he gets to the point where he gets comfortable and he gets some traction, his game really starts to take off,” Sullivan beamed. “Right now I think he has he knows he belongs–he knows he’s an NHL player and he can play anywhere in our lineup. He can play in our top six. He can play in a checking role. We can use him on a power play. He’s a real good penalty killer. He’s just a good 200-foot player.”

The Penguins third line is still technically unsettled but the work over the last four periods has been a big step forward. Jared McCann has moved from center to LW and Nick Bjugstad has taken the third line center role.

The line seems infinitely more natural than shoehorning Bjugstad in the Penguins top-six. McCann’s speed on the wing and puck-tenacity makes the line go. He can do more things from the left side that he couldn’t do at center (aggressive forecheck) and seems to be able to play with the puck more when he’s sprung ahead of the rush.

The line finished with an even Corsi but owned the scoring chance battle, 7-1.

Bjugstad is a smart player who does many things well but is not an exciting driver. The 6-foot-6 forward not enough of a power forward to fit in the top-six and his acumen to move the puck to open ice and conduct the line is an improvement in the middle of the third line. His defensive work with his long reach is unquestioned.

“We’ve kind of used (Bjugstad) all over the place. You know, I think for Nick’s sake, we’d like to settle him into a certain position and give him a chance to get a comfort level,” Sullivan explained. “We used him a lot in the defensive zone tonight with his line.”

Now, if the Penguins can get a few points from Patric Hornqvist who is scoreless in 13 games, that line will be humming.

The Penguins fourth line now has five members fighting for three spots. Tanner Pearson and Dominik Simon replaced Teddy Blueger and Garrett Wilson, Tuesday. Pearson was scratched for both games last weekend and Simon was a healthy scratch for one. The message appears to have been received as both were hard on the puck and noticeable on the ice.

The line had an even Corsi and nearly even on scoring chances. However, the New Jersey push in the third period skewed the Penguins numbers. The Penguins fourth line led by Matt Cullen was again a force, even in the third period. It was apparent Simon and Pearson would not slack off as both skated as hard in the third period as they did the first.

Cullen played about 12 minutes as a reward for the line’s success.

I thought (Cullen’s) line was really good all night long. They were on the puck and they were physical,” said the Penguins head coach. “They brought in a ton of urgency and a ton of energy to the ice tonight. And that’s that’s how we have to play game in and game out, if we’re going to have success.”

The Penguins four line “role-call” was a success, Sunday and again Tuesday. The Penguins have a rough schedule ahead–seven of their next 10 games are against playoff teams and very soon we’ll know what they are. Now that the Penguins seem have set their lines with players in natural positions, the results are improving.

Just like the on-ice play, sometimes simpler is better. Bjugstad at third line center, McCann on the wing, Kessel on the right side, and healthy competition for the fourth line sounds like a pretty good recipe.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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