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‘Chip on Our Shoulder’: Penguins Grind Line Digs Their New Role

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Pittsburgh Penguins Zach Aston-Reese and Brandon Tanev

They survived the third period, but the NHL doesn’t keep stats on almost or which teams win a period. It is the final score which counts and the Pittsburgh Penguins did enough over 60 minutes to beat the Washington Capitals, 4-3 on Sunday.

Goalie Matt Murray stood on his head for the final 20 minutes to preserve the win. But the roots of the Penguins victory went deeper than Murray, just as the reasons for the season success despite a lineup which at times has featured three or more players from the AHL.

There has been only one Pittsburgh Penguins line which has remained together nearly all season. Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, and Brandon Tanev have been joined at the hips.

As head coach Mike Sullivan is fond of saying about the line, “They bring a different dimension to our team.”

As the Penguins identity has shifted to a hard hat mentality this season, that line has been part of the bedrock foundation. It began as the fourth line but was elevated to the third line in the wake of injuries and in the wake of the line’s success. On a team of stars, the line helps define the Penguins style of play.

“That’s our bread and butter, put the puck in then retrieving it, and holding onto it,” winger Zach Aston-Reese said. “When you’ve got guys who are coming back (into the lineup) like Sid and guys who always making plays, everyone wants to try to do that. For our line, in particular, we’re just going to have to play a simple game.”

Talk about the Penguins in a nutshell.

The fancy plays which last season tortured the Penguins instead of opponents have been wiped off the menu this season. The Penguins are 52 games into the season and into the home stretch. The style of play has stuck.

“Try to possess pucks. That’s one of the best ways to stop (Washington) and stop us from having to chase them,” Aston-Reese said.

And thus it was no coincidence, the game-winning goal was touched by all three members of the Penguins grind line before Tanev’s shot fluttered past Washington goalie Ilya Samsonov on Sunday. Aston-Reese dug and Blueger, as they so often do, dug pucks off the wall and won possession. For the first time in the third period, the Penguins played offense.

That is the different dimension the line brings to the team. It’s a fast but hard hat mentality.

Blueger has 18 points in 52 games, including seven goals. Aston-Reese has 12 points with five goals. Tanev is the big producer among the group with 23 points with 11 goals. They won’t burn out the goal light, but that’s not the point.

The line, which still hasn’t found a catchy nickname (hint, hint), has routinely defended the opposition’s most dangerous threats. Sunday, they saw a healthy dose of Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana which is a line that has consistently lit the lamp against the Penguins.

The Washington line was shutout on Sunday, and until the third period onslaught, the line was underwater in Corsi, scoring attempts and even shots. The Penguins younger guys

“It’s a good challenge (facing top lines). We all take pride in it, especially Teddy (Blueger) and myself. “Tans” has been around for a bit, but for Teddy and I, it’s getting that chip on our shoulder that we belong on the ice against these guys and we’re just as good as those star players over there and we can shut them down.”

It is simple hockey. You won’t see drop passes at the blue line from this crew or between the legs highlight-style goals. Their style and their job is to get the puck deep and force the opposing team to expend energy on defense. It’s especially effective when the Penguins can do it to the talented opposition.

“It’s a team game. We shut them down, then Sid’s line goes out and scores, or “Geno’s” line scores,” Aston-Reese smiled. “When you have a dynamic like that, it’a g good recipe for success.”

Or, that line can just do the scoring itself, as it did Sunday.

It’s a different dimension than head coach Mike Sullivan has had before. He hasn’t had a third or fourth line consistently capable of shutting down the opposition. Matt Cullen’s line did some of the job, but Sullivan more often used strength against strength by matching Sidney Crosby’s line against the opposing top line. The ability to free up the Penguins top centers won’t show up on the scoresheet.

But that’s why team games aren’t measured by stat sheets, but by win-loss records. Even with a goal on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Penguins grind line got what was important. A win.

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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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