Necessity is the mother of invention. The necessity to find new lines and new combinations have visited the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mike Sullivan often this season. As injuries mounted, and continued to mount, and piled up, and stacked up, the Penguins have used a myriad of lines. The Penguins pressed Jared McCann into second-line center duty but things have not gone so well during Sidney Crosby’s injury absence. Until the last two wins, including the 5-2 win over Edmonton on Friday night.
McCann is part of the Penguins speedy youth movement, but he had not scored in 10 games. In the 16 games since the team announced Sidney Crosby underwent core-muscle surgery, the Penguins team has outscored opponents 37-26 at even strength. However, McCann has only been on the ice for 12 goals-for, and has been negative in scoring chances and high-danger chances.
In the last two games, Sullivan teamed McCann with Dominik Kahun and Zach Aston-Reese and the trio has been a better mixture than the flavor packet in a pack of Ramen noodles. (Chicken flavor, of course). It has been the new McCann line which changed the game.
“We’ve had some plays and some battles down low. When you have that it’s easier to sustain some offensive zone time,” Aston-Reese said.
Tuesday night in Calgary, the Penguins were on their heels until an early second-period shift by the trio sparked a goal and a 4-1 win. It happened again Friday night in Edmonton when another grinding, dominant shift led to a game-changing goal.
In the middle of the first period, Edmonton was running the Penguins out of the building. The Penguins trailed 5-1 on the shot clock and it wasn’t that close. The Edmonton scorers were stingy with shots. Then the McCann line changed the game, permanently.
All three forwards created low-zone pressure, including the turnover which McCann and Kahun’s created behind the Edmonton net. Aston-Reese had a pair of chances in front of the net before he and Kahun worked the low-to-high game for defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. McCann deftly screened Edmonton goalie Mike Smith and Ruhwedel’s long wrist shots trickled into the net.
“We’ve been better as a team getting net-front traffic,” Aston-Reese said.
The McCann line dominated the Edmonton scoring line with Leon Draisaitl and James Neal, which makes it even more important.
“I thought tonight, defensively, we took away time and space of their top guys,” McCann said.
When Aston-Reese is on the line, the trio has outscored opponents (2-0) and created more high-danger scoring chances, according to NaturalStattrick.com. From McCann’s speed and tenacity, Kahun’s quick offensive creativity, and now Aston-Reese’s gritty game, the line now has all of the ingredients to be successful.
In addition to Ruhwedel’s goal, the line scored when McCann stole the puck at the defensive blue-line and had a breakaway from the red-line.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had a breakaway,” McCann laughed.
And the Pittsburgh Penguins can smile a little, too. They’ve found a combination that works. Players which made other lines better have formed a solid second line, and could be the basis of a third line, even when the team finally gets healthy. Through the chaos and adversity, the Penguins have found a few combinations. Now they have another option.