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Big Mac or McPatty Line? Penguins Third Line Could be the Secret Sauce

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Patrick Marleau, Jared McCann, Patric Hornqvist Pittsburgh Penguins
Patrick Marleau, Jared McCann, Patric Hornqvist: Photos from Pittsburgh Penguins, PHN, Icon Sportswire

Patrick Marleau is on the left, and Patric Hornqvist on the right with Jared McCann in the middle. The Pittsburgh Penguins newly constituted third line showed energy and an offensive spark through the Penguins shortened Phase 3 training camp. Through the necessity of injury replacement, which directed the Penguins all season, the team may have found something.

Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese…pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.

So, do you want to call it the Big Mac line or the McPatty line?

“We’re growing every day with our confidence with each other. You can tell we’re making plays and doing all of the right things in practice,” McCann said on Friday. “You know, it’s been good.”

The ingredients of the line are as unique as the line could be good. Patric Hornqvist is a special player in the NHL. On a team full of stars and generational talent, Hornqvist manages to draw the ire and attention of defenders as he relentlessly battles in the low zone. There are few like him, and his energy can raise an entire team, even in practice.

Patrick Marleau is a new addition. The Penguins gave the San Jose Sharks a third-round pick (which upgrades to a second-rounder if they win the Stanley Cup) for the 40-year-old Marleau at the February trade deadline.

Marleau’s career is nearing the end. The former All-Star and San Jose captain scored just 37 points (16g, 21a) with the high-powered Toronto Maple Leafs last season. He scored only 22 points (11g, 11a) in 58games with San Jose and eight games with the Penguins this season.

Despite Marleau’s shrinking stats, he looked like a new man in training camp. Marleau zipped past defenders, raced up and down the ice, and put the puck in the net.

Even on the other side of 40, Marleau has superior speed, which he displayed in camp.

So, too does Jared McCann, who is the third line center because Nick Bjugstad had an injury-plagued season, which culminated in an April spinal surgery. Bjugstad played only 10 games this season, so McCann is familiar with the role, even if Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan favored McCann on the wing.

McCann knows his role.

“Being a swing player (behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), responsible at both ends of the ice and making the right play,” McCann acknowledged. “Trying to stay confident, trying to make plays, trying to be good defensively … that’s all you can do.”

Jared McCann, 24, equaled his career-high with 35 points this season. His speed and tenacity add a unique element to the Penguins lineup, too.

“(McCann) looks great out there. He can really fly, and he shoots the puck harder than anyone on the team. We have to make sure he gets the puck as much as he can in the middle, then try to feed Patty and me on the side,” Hornqvist said. “Create a lot of cycle game and take it to the net. I like our line…”

Hornqvist and the Pittsburgh Penguins should like the line.

This season, McCann and Hornqvist played nearly 250 minutes together but did so with a revolving door of left-wingers. According to the line tool at Natural Stat Trick, the pair dominated scoring chances (57%) even though they were below water in shot attempts against the opposition (47.6%).

Marleau will be the difference, and the upgrade necessary for the line to convert more of the scoring chances.

In camp, Patrick Marleau did a couple of things the Penguins love for their wingers to do. He took defensemen wide, which created space in the middle, and he generated speed through the neutral zone for controlled zone entries.

He absolutely undressed defenseman Jack Johnson on Thursday night, which is not easy to do. Johnson does not often get beat at the blue line, but Marleau whizzed past.

When the Penguins won the 2009, 2016, and 2017 Stanley Cups, their third line was a difference-maker. From Jordan Staal between Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy to Nick Bonino between Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, the third unit buckled the opponents with timely goals and smothering defense.

Well, not Phil Kessel playing smothering defense, but he provided the offensive snap.

The 2020 Stanley Cup tournament will be unlike any other, but the games will still be won and lost in the same manner, and the Pittsburgh Penguins third line just might be their secret sauce.

But it’s your call if its the Big Mac or the McPatty line.

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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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