CRANBERRY TWP, Pa — The Pittsburgh Penguins fired 52 shots on Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith on Saturday and one line created more high-danger scoring chances, more shots and more zone time than the others. Head coach Mike Sullivan corrected reporters (including this one) whenever the line was referred to as the fourth line. In the absence of a numerical label to denote ice time, we’ll refer to Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, and Brandon Tanev as the “grind line.”
The line earned more ice time Saturday than the labeled third line with Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann. Despite the “grind line” taking a majority of their faceoffs in the defensive zone, for a second consecutive game the line shut down their opponents. Saturday, the line created five high-danger chances without allowing any. Overall, the line allowed only two scoring chances.
However, as Mike Sullivan corrected before the game Saturday, “if you want to call Teddy Blueger’s line our fourth line.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins line listed as fourth on the line charts has been exceedingly good at pinning opponents deep in the defensive end, controlling the puck and putting pucks on the net. They combined for 12 shots on goal Saturday, including six by Blueger.
“I think it’s making everything for each other, (we are) all playing fast, all playing the north-south game, and good communicating when you’re out there,” Tanev said.
The line has played multiple games in a row together and much of the last 12 games together, which has been a rarity in the injury-torn Penguins lineup. Penguins faithful who yearn for stable line combinations may enjoy Tanev’s insight, too.
“When you’re out there with a particular line and build that confidence and that chemistry, things become easier,” Tanev said. “As the games go on, each shift and each practice, you build more confidence and you work things out and understand where everyone is on the ice.”
Despite his reputation as a line juggler, Sullivan has mostly left the Penguins lines intact this season, at least when he was permitted by circumstance. The injuries wiped away a preseason and training camp of chemistry for at least two of the Penguins four lines.
“We all know the game we want to play. That’s fast, physical, north-south game and the opportunity to chip-in offensively,” said Tanev. “I think as a line we have an identity and we want to keep that going. We understand the way we want to play and what makes us successful on the ice.”
Last season, PHN polled the Penguins fourth-liners including Aston-Reese and Riley Sheahan about the “fourth line” label and what it means. Last season, the linemates agreed their job was defense first, make it tough on the opponents and offensive contributions were desired by not mandatory. One of them admitted to less pressure on the fourth line to score.
That has not been the case this season. We won’t out the player who smiled when admitting offense wasn’t first on the menu, but the line which is listed fourth on the Pittsburgh Penguins line combinations doesn’t see it that way anymore.
“Regardless of where you’re positioned at, there are four lines and you go out there and work hard whether you’re playing against the other team’s top line or their second, third or fourth line,” Tanev said. “I think you go out there and don’t change the way you play. You compete and try to get two points for the team.”
And Tanev flatly rejected the notion that the “fourth line” has less pressure to score, “No, any opportunity you can to chip in offensively I think you want to do that, but at the same time you don’t take away what makes you successful on the ice.”