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"He's One of the Smartest Guys I've Played With in the NHL"

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Near the end of the Pens’ opening-round series with the New York Rangers, head coach Mike Sullivan was complimentary of Nick Bonino’s play – both individually and alongside linemates Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel.

“His play for quite some time now has been really strong in a lot of areas,” Sullivan said. “He’s stepped in on that line and has helped us maintain some consistent offensive production throughout our lineup and some of the injuries we’ve endured down the stretch. He plays on one of the power-play units, he’s a big part of our penalty kill.

“He’s a real responsible player. He can play at both ends of the rink. He’s a good face-off guy. We use him in a lot of capacities and I think his play over the last 6, 7, 8 weeks has been the best that it’s been since I’ve been here. He seems to be getting better with each game that he plays, so we hope that trend continues.”

It certainly has, as Bonino was Pittsburgh’s best player in the ice during Thursday’s Game 1 of their second-round matchup with Washington at Verizon Center – finishing with a goal and an assist in the Pens’ 4-3 overtime defeat.

The day before, Bonino said that while he was happy with his play overall, he felt there was one area in particular he could improve.

“The one thing I can do is shoot a little bit more,” he told me. “I think I only had three shots in the first series.”

Bonino did just that. In the first period, he undressed defenseman Dmitry Orlov with a beautiful move – “Tried to make a fake and (Braden) Holtby committed” – and after he put the puck on net, defenseman Ben Lovejoy was there to collect it and put it home. Bonino then scored a huge goal 8:42 into the third period to tie the game and force the extra session.

“Haggy made a great pass on the goal there and I finished,” Bonino said. “I think we were shooting a lot. I think we had a shot or a chance every shift. We were happy with how we played as a line and I think that’s what we’ve been waiting for, and hopefully it continues.”

Bonino’s offensive ability has been evident for a while now. In addition to ranking one point behind team leaders Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with seven total (1G-6A) so far this postseason, Bonino finished with 19 points (6G-13A) in his last 23 games of the regular season after returning from an upper-body injury that forced him to miss 17 straight.

Before going down, Bonino – who had 22 goals in 2013-14 and 15 the year after – had posted three goals and 10 points in his first 40 games of the season.

“At the beginning of the year, I don’t think I was playing bad at all. I think I was playing the role I was asked to play with Mike (Johnston),” Bonino said. “It was more of a shutdown, defensive role. Had a lot of D-zone starts."

The Pens had acquired Bonino from Vancouver during the offseason, where he had been traded the previous summer from Anaheim – the team he had spent the first four-plus years of his career with.

Coming to Pittsburgh was definitely an adjustment for Bonino, who had to go through a coaching change as well.

“It’s been different. It’s been three teams in three years,” he said. “It’s never easy. But it was just a little bit of an up-and-down start for our team. We had a good team, but we weren’t performing. No one was scoring, really. We had great goaltending and that saved us. With a fresh face like Sully, I think we were all able to just kind of reset and start over and it’s been great.”

One person who knew exactly what Bonino was capable of is Lovejoy, who was his teammate with the Ducks.

“He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve played with in the NHL,” Lovejoy said. “He’s able to make plays with his skill and his brain. He’s not the fastest skater. But he is always in the right position, both offensively and defensively. He is able to move guys around with his skill and with his mind.

“I was so excited last summer when we picked him up. He’s one of the best guys I’ve played with and just an awesome teammate in the room. I’m really happy for the success he’s been having.”

A lot of it has come while skating with Hagelin and Kessel. After Bonino had been back in the lineup for a few weeks, the Pens lost Evgeni Malkin with an upper-body injury – and the center slotted into his spot between those two in early March.

The move worked out perfect, as the three of them had immediate chemistry and became arguably the Pens’ strongest line down the stretch.

“When Geno went down, it opened up a little bit more opportunity offensively and you get to play with guys like Hagelin and Phil,” Bonino said. “I think it complements my game. It’s just been a good little run here.

“We all do something different. Phil shoots, Haggy skates, I pass. Obviously we can all do all three of them, but when you get three different things like that, it usually ends up working out.”

Both Hagelin and Kessel called Bonino was a smart player who sees the ice well.

“He’s always in the right spot,” Hagelin said. “He’s strong on his stick. He’s a fun centerman to play with because he’s aware defensively but knows how to make plays offensively. We’ve had some good chemistry since Day 1. He’s a fun guy to play with.”

Bonino is also, like Lovejoy said, a fun guy to have around.

“He is the best guy at getting picked on I’ve ever played with,” Lovejoy joked. “He handles it so well, he loves giving it back and forth. He is just a pleasure to have around.”

And Bonino is happy to be here.

“We have a pretty tight group,” Bonino said. “We’re all friends, we all get along. You don’t find that in every room. There’s not that one guy no one wants to hang out with. Everyone’s pretty close and pretty happy to be around each other, and teams that are close like that usually can make some noise.”

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