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playoffs

Penguins' supporting cast making a difference

Pittsburgh can advance to conference final with win against Washington in Game 5

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not producing, and it doesn't seem to matter.

Entering Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports), Crosby and Malkin have combined for one goal and three points. Without their two brightest stars clicking offensively, the Penguins lead the best-of-7 series 3-1.

"It's just an essence of a team," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "It seems like every night, different people step up at different times and make important, key plays that help us win. Sometimes they're game-winning goals, but sometimes they're subtle plays, whether it be on a penalty kill or a blocked shot or a won faceoff. For me that's the essence of a team, and that's what I think I've grown to admire about this group, is that they work hard for one another."

The Penguins' supporting cast has them one win from the Eastern Conference Final.

Matt Cullen, the 39-year-old, fourth-line center who Pittsburgh signed to a one-year contract on Aug. 6, scored 16 regular-season goals, his most since 2009-10, and has three goals and two assists in nine playoff games. His third playoff goal gave the Penguins a 2-1 lead 3:07 into the second period of Game 4 on Wednesday.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Cullen goes five-hole to give Pens lead

Then there's Carl Hagelin, the speedy left wing who had 12 points in 43 games with the Anaheim Ducks, but has 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) in 46 games since being acquired by the Penguins on Jan. 16.

Nick Bonino's play between Hagelin and right wing Phil Kessel has some calling him Pittsburgh's true second-line center, ahead of Malkin. Rookie forward Conor Sheary has gone from playing in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton six months ago to scoring five points in his first nine playoff games, primarily skating to Crosby's left. Rookie goalie Matt Murray has won six of seven playoff starts.

And the list of key supporting players, which includes forwards Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, and veteran defenseman Trevor Daley, continues.

"I think you just have to believe in the way you play," Crosby said, "and trust that we'll get our chances and when we do, someone will step up. It's been different guys … a lot of guys thrown into different positions, and they came up big for us."

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Daley's shot deflects off Alzner and in

The Penguins have been defined by world-class talent for a decade and have won the Stanley Cup once in that span, in 2009. That team was led by a Conn Smythe Trophy-winning Malkin, a highly productive Crosby, and steady goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but had much more.

Pittsburgh won that championship with forward Max Talbot scoring eight playoff goals, including the Penguins' two goals in their 2-1 Game 7 win against the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. Forward Tyler Kennedy added five goals, and Rob Scuderi played shutdown defense averaging 20:30 of ice time.

Seven years later, the Penguins seem to have a similar mix.

"It's a lot of fun to be around it and to be a part of it and to watch it," Sullivan said. "To see these guys play as hard as they do for one another as their coaches, it's a thrill … I think because of that chemistry, I think it's really helped both sides, whether it be the core guys, or the role players step up and make big plays for us at key times that helps us win."

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