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X-Factor: Bonino filling big role for Penguins

Picking up slack for injured Malkin to propel Pittsburgh into playoffs

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

The Pittsburgh Penguins second-line center has been a catalyst in their surge into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That should sound familiar. Evgeni Malkin has played that role well for a decade. This time around, Nick Bonino has taken over the position and made it his own.

When the Penguins announced Malkin would miss six to eight weeks with an upper-body injury on March 12, some expected them to falter down the stretch and miss the playoffs. At that time, Pittsburgh was struggling to put two wins together while battling the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings in the wild card race.

Three weeks later, Pittsburgh clinched a playoff berth for the 10th straight season with a 5-0 win against the New York Islanders. Five days after that, the Penguins clinched second place in the Metropolitan Division with their 14th win in 15 games.

Several factors played into that run, with Bonino's contributions at the top of the list. Playing between left wing Carl Hagelin and right wing Phil Kessel, he has helped focus a second line that at times clashed with Malkin's east-west style of play.

Video: BUF@PIT: Bonino nets Pens' second SHG in 24 seconds

"We were hoping that those guys could establish some chemistry," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "The three of those guys, to their credit, are playing the game the right way right now. They're playing hard and they have some chemistry."

Malkin was Pittsburgh's most consistent offensive force throughout much of this season. His production never slowed; before his injury, he scored in every other game dating back to Dec. 27, the last time he was held without a point in two consecutive games.

While Malkin excelled, his linemates struggled.

Video: CAR@PIT: Bonino taps Kessel's dish past Lack

Enter Bonino, who catered to the Penguins' north-south needs. Kessel, playing alongside Bonino, had five goals and six assists from March 26-April 3, and Hagelin had six goals and five assists in 11 games from March 17-April 5.

"We're doing a good job getting to pucks," Hagelin said. "We're aggressive in the offensive zone and when we have the opportunity to make plays, we make plays, and when there's nothing there, we put it deep and go to work."

Bonino's rise began with a game-winning goal in the third period against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 17. It continued two days later when he recorded two assists in a 4-1 win against the Flyers and it reached its peak against the Red Wings on March 26, with a goal and four assists in a 7-2 victory.

Video: PIT@DET: Bonino scores off the rush on power play

"[Kessel and Hagelin have] so much speed," Bonino said. "All I'm trying to do is get the puck to them and make my play."

Once Malkin returns, there is a possibility Bonino would remain between Kessel and Hagelin. That wouldn't be a knock on Malkin; rather a compliment of his ability to elevate those around him.

Whichever line Malkin centers will be prominently featured, but if Bonino remains in his current position, Pittsburgh could possess the most lethal third line in these playoffs.

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