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Penguins Finally Figured it Out? Getting Best from Lars Eller, Reilly Smith



Pittsburgh Penguins, Reilly Smith

It might have taken 60 games, but the Pittsburgh Penguins have both found a productive third line and are getting the most out of Reilly Smith.

Lars Eller is the pinwheel of the new Penguins lines, and things finally spinning.

Pittsburgh Hockey Now spoke with Smith when coach Mike Sullivan first paired Smith and Eller a couple of weeks ago on the northwest trip through Vancouver and Seattle. In addition to Smith pushing back on what he called “baseless opinions” that he wasn’t happy in Pittsburgh, Smith also talked about why he had immediate chemistry with Eller.

It’s simple. Literally. But the answers also give a contrast and perhaps just a hint at why things weren’t working between Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith.

“I think Lars, he’s an easy player to play with because he’s very predictable and what he does he’s a straight line player, so, I’ve enjoyed playing with him,” Smith said on March 1. “He sees the ice well, and he’s looking to create plays, but he’s also very predictable, which is nice.”

Sullivan went to the reconfigured third line with Eller, Smith, and Puustinen 15 games ago, but due to injuries and lineup ineffectiveness, went back to Smith on Evgeni Malkin’s wing, where Smith played most of the first 50 games. Puustinen was also part of that line with Malkin.

Sullivan’s winger swap also provides a significant comparison point.

According to, over the last three games, the wingers with Eller have substantial statistics. Most importantly, the line has a 3-1 goal differential and 72% of the scoring chances on the ice. Perhaps the more amazing thing is that only four of the 23 faceoffs the line has taken have been in the offensive zone.

In other words, the line with Eller is transitioning to offense and creating scoring chances.

In the several games preceding Sullivan’s line flip, the Malkin line was outscored 2-0 and 59% of the scoring chances. The Corsi ranks tell a story, too. With Eller, the trio had a 68% shot-attempt ratio. With Malkin, it was 56%.

In fairness, the team’s lifeless performances in the games leading to the last few games were stunning in their ineptitude and lethargic effort.

The team is playing significantly better, have won two of three games, and are five points out of a playoff spot, trailing the Detroit Red Wings, whom they boatraced out of PPG Paints Arena 6-3 on Sunday.

“They’re playing the game the right way. They’ve been good on both sides of the puck. They defend well; they’ve created a lot of offense off their defense,” said Sullivan following the Penguins’ win on Sunday. “You know, there’s a collective effort, too. There is predictability amongst the three of them. So I think when they get into the fore-check, for example, they’re all doing their job and getting the puck back because there’s no disconnect. So when you think on the same page, I think it helps you have success as a line.”

Perhaps Sullivan also implied a reason for Smith’s lack of success for much of the season, but that’s an inference left to the reader.

That Sullivan and Smith both praised Eller as predictable traces directly to why Smith is having success. It can be difficult playing with Malkin, who likes to dominate the puck and make plays. Playing beside Eller is a simpler game, and it’s obviously a more collaborative trio.

“I think we’re reading well off each other, what each other is doing out there,” Eller said. “We’re anticipating each other, and everybody can pass and shoot. We’ve got all of the attributes of a good line. We’re having fun; we could have had a few (Saturday) and a few more goals (Sunday). It’s very encouraging.”

For Puustinen’s part, he simply said that he gets open, and Eller looks for him. On Sunday, it was Smith who looked for Puustinen open in the slot. Puustinen snapped a top-corner wrist shot past Red Wings goalie Alex Lyon.

Smith also scored, though his tally lacked the precision or beauty of Puustinen’s goal when a hard pass deflected off his leg, off a defenseman, and into the net.

They both count the same. It was Smith’s 12th goal of the season, and he has points in three straight.

Malkin’s track record speaks for itself, but the recent results of the new third line not only mirror the uplifted team but are a primary reason for the better-late-than-never surge.

And Smith is playing his best hockey since October. It’s a win-win, and now we’ll all see more actual wins follow.