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Crosby's line asserting dominance over NHL

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Mike Sullivan first put Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary together on March 5 against Buffalo.

The Pens were down 3-0 after a dismal first period, and the head coach decided to change up his lines to try and spark the team. He placed those three together to start the second period, and the spark was obvious in an eventual 4-3 win.

They officially became a line on March 10 in Edmonton, and while they were held pointless in that game, they continued to build chemistry throughout the rest of the western Canada trip. Just look at their numbers: on March 11 in Vancouver, they combined for three goals, six points and 21 (!) shots, and on March 13 in Calgary, they combined for three goals, six points and 14 shots.

After the Pens got shut out on Wednesday in Philadelphia, they returned home and that trio combined for three goals, five points and 10 shots on Friday against New Jersey. And on Sunday against Florida, they produced their best performance yet - Crosby recorded his first hat trick of the season, with Guentzel and Sheary assisting on all three goals.

"We knew we were going to break through, we just had to keep doing what we were doing," Sheary said. "I think we were getting close to 20 shots a game a couple times and we were only coming away with one or two goals, so I think it was a good effort from us."

As Sullivan remarked after the game, that line has been a dynamic one for the Pens, a word that defenseman Ian Cole also used when talking about their play.

"Crosby is the best player in the world, so when he's going like that, he's going but also Shears and Guentz are playing great," Cole said. "It's a real treat to see those guys buzzing like they are, as dynamic as they are. It's really good for our team when they're doing that."

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It's not necessarily an easy thing for a young guy to figure out how to play with Crosby.

"There's pressure to play with a guy like Sid, quite honestly," Sullivan said. "You're expected to make plays, you're expected to produce and so it can be intimidating for young players. I think it takes a certain maturity level that players need to have or a quiet confidence about their own game that they have the ability to play with a player like Sid."

And even though they may possess those qualities, sometimes it still takes time to get comfortable, which is something Sheary said he experienced last year. Then a rookie, he skated on Crosby's left wing at different points in the season before settling into that spot for the duration of their Stanley Cup championship run.

This year, the coaches decided to move Guentzel - currently a rookie - into the left wing and slide Sheary over to the right. Despite his age and inexperience, he's got speed, hockey sense and offensive instincts - just like Crosby and Sheary. And because of that, he began to fit right in with the two of them.

"With Shears, we've played together for a while now and Guentz, I think he's getting more and more comfortable," Crosby said. "So just trying to communicate and talk out plays."

Guentzel said that dialogue has been a big help to him and a big reason why he was able to start contributing almost immediately.

"They've been huge to me just telling me what to do out there," he said.

Guentzel admitted that having grown up watching Crosby as a spectator, every now and then he gets caught up watching him as a linemate. That aspect and the balance of making plays while setting Crosby up has been a little bit of an adjustment - though not one that's been especially noticeable.

"It takes a little while but when you have a player like that who's helping you out, it's pretty special," Guentzel said.

Considering that Sheary was in Guentzel's position just last year, it's fair to think he might be trying to offer advice to his teammate. But Sheary said he actually doesn't have to help him out too much.

"I might have told him once or twice just play your game," Sheary said. "But other than that, I think he's a smart enough player, he's a good enough player that he can play with anyone. He's a really good player and he makes a lot of plays. I think if he sticks to his own game, it's going to work out and it has for him. As long as he doesn't stray away from that, he'll be alright."

That's exactly how Sullivan feels.

"My advice to both of those guys has been and will continue to be just don't change your game," he said. "You just play. And the rest of it will take care of itself."

Sullivan added that he also tells them that Crosby will adapt to them, not the other way around. The onus is on him to make it work, and that's part of what makes players like him and Evgeni Malkin as good as they are.

"I think Sid being the player that he is, he certainly helps those guys a lot," Sullivan said. "I think Sid's the glue that holds that line together, but certainly the three of them, to a man, they've all played terrific for us."

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In talking to Crosby, Guentzel and Sheary about what makes their line so successful, all three players said it starts with using their speed to get in on the forecheck.

"Everyone tries to get on pucks quick and create turnovers," Crosby said.

From there, they like going to work down low. And Sullivan said how they support each other there is what makes them so difficult to defend.

"They're hard to defend because they're so quick and elusive," Sullivan said. "Right now, they're playing that give-and-go game down low. They'll make two or three foot passes in tight space to create the separation they need to get a scoring chance, and I think that's what's really helped them create the offense down low."

What also makes them dangerous is that, as Sullivan put it, no one is just a scorer or just a passer. They're all just hockey players who take the shot when it's open, and when it's not, they have the vision and awareness to find someone who can.

"It just depends on the game and who gets in the right spots," Crosby said. "For the most part, we try to play the same way. When we do get turnovers, those guys are pretty quick at getting to the net and it just depends on who has the lucky night of being in the right place."

They've definitely got speed, but not so much size as Sheary is 5-foot-8 while Guentzel and Crosby measure 5-foot-11. But that hasn't affected their play at all.

"I think what allows them to be successful is that all three of them are brave and they don't get pushed around," Sullivan said. "I think they're hard to play against they're elusive in tight space and they play with courage. Those two things can be dangerous. So even though they might be a little bit undersized, I think their hearts are a lot bigger than their physical stature and I think that's what allows them to be successful."

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