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'HBK Line' key to Penguins road success

Hagelin, Bonino, Kessel have provided depth, matchup advantage in five playoff wins away from Pittsburgh

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

SAN JOSE -- The San Jose Sharks are home now, which means they have the last-change advantage and, in theory, should get favorable matchups. The problem is the Pittsburgh Penguins have crushed that theory whenever they've gone on the road in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"It's pick your poison," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

The Penguins have poisoned their opponents with their depth throughout the postseason, especially on the road. Their most potent combination has been the "HBK Line" featuring Nick Bonino playing between Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel.

The "HBK Line" has done damage to the home team's last-change advantage, and helped the Penguins win five of eight road games in this year's playoffs by combining for seven goals and 20 points.

It's the best road production the Penguins have gotten from any of their four lines, and the "HBK Line" is technically Pittsburgh's third line.

Video: The now infamous Penguins' "HBK Line" keeps rolling

Now it's the Sharks turn to try and stop the "HBK Line" from damaging their home-ice advantage, starting with Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Even Sharks coach Peter DeBoer knows he's in a tough spot, especially considering his team is approaching must-win territory down 2-0 in the best-of-7 series.

"They've given us matchup problems, not just us, but other teams," DeBoer said. "When you have Kessel, [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin on three different lines, I mean, all three of those guys make more [money] than anybody on our team. That's matchup problems for everybody all playoffs."

Assuming DeBoer chooses to lock defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic on Crosby all night, which is a decision he should make, he has to figure out if it's best for the Sharks to go with the defense pair featuring Brent Burns and Paul Martin against Malkin or the "HBK Line."

NHL Network analyst Scott Stevens, who coached with DeBoer in New Jersey, thinks he should use Burns and Martin against the "HBK Line," leaving the third defense pair of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak on Malkin and his linemates, Chris Kunitz and Bryan Rust.

Think about how crazy that sounds, though. Stevens is suggesting (a Penguins representative made a similar suggestion, by the way) that the Sharks should leave their third defense pair to try and shut down Malkin, one of the best players in the world.

It's not crazy because of the impact the "HBK Line" has been having all playoffs in any venue.

Video: SJS@PIT, Gm2: Kessel opens scoring after turnover

Kessel has scored in three straight road games and has seven road points in this year's playoffs. Bonino has at least a point in three straight road games and eight in total on the road.

"It's a third line with a first-line player [Kessel] playing like a first-line player and that's the dilemma," Stevens said. "We are talking about depth again, and the Penguins have shown they have greater depth."

It's depth by design.

Players like Rust, Conor Sheary and even Kunitz, to a degree, might be third-line players on other teams, but they are first- and second-line players in Pittsburgh because of Sullivan's desire for balance throughout the lineup.

"We have threats on every line," Sullivan said. "I think that presents potential challenges for our opponents from a matchup standpoint."

He's being modest by saying "potential." It presents real, actual challenges.

The irony is that Sullivan might never have realized he could deploy his depth this way and present these problems for the opponent had it not been for Malkin's injury in mid-March. That's when, out of necessity, he put Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel on the same line.

They clicked right away and combined for 45 points in the 16 games Malkin missed, including two in Game 1 of the first round against the New York Rangers.

Sullivan smartly chose to keep them together when Malkin returned for Game 2 against New York. It was a statement from him that instead of changing everything for Malkin, it was going to be Malkin who had to change for the betterment of the group.

"I think Geno's adapted," Sullivan said. "I think because of that, we've become a team. It's not just about one or two or three guys that help us win every night."

It's hard to argue with him.

Malkin's ice time has been reduced by nearly two minutes per game in the playoffs (17:25) from the regular season (19:22), but he's enjoyed the matchup advantage, particularly on the road.

Malkin leads the Penguins with 10 road points, including four in Game 4 against the Rangers. Bonino is second with eight. Crosby is tied with Kessel with seven. Kunitz has six and Hagelin has five.

"It obviously helps when you've got three if not four lines that can score night in and night out," Bonino said. "It definitely makes their coach think a little bit about matchups."

DeBoer is thinking about them now. He can't love his options.

"Someone is going to get a favorable matchup," Sullivan said.

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