For the past several years the Penguins have had a very defined role for their third line in the playoffs.
Their responsibilities included playing a tough, physical puck possession game in the offensive zone and shutting down the opposing team’s best offensive players.
The trio of center Jordan Staal and wingers Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy executed the duties superbly during a four-year run together from 2008-12.
|Brandon Sutter |
However, this postseason the Penguins’ third line has a different look and feel to it. First of all, the personnel had a makeover.
Center Brandon Sutter, who worked with Cooke and Kennedy last season, has been the anchor of the third line all season. He’s been working alongside veteran winger Lee Stempniak for the last two weeks. The most recent configuration of the third line had forward Beau Bennett playing on left wing.
“The last few weeks have been good. I’ve been playing with ‘Stemper’ almost every shift,” Sutter said. “It’s nice to have some familiarity there. With Beau it worked pretty good. We’ve had a couple different wingers, but so far it’s gone pretty well.”
Bennett was moved onto the third line halfway through Game 1 of their opening round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets Wednesday night. He fit right in with his new linemates, helping setup Sutter’s game-winning third-period goal in a 4-3 triumph.
“Beau’s a smart player,” Stempniak said. “He skates well. It’s been a good fit for the three of us. A lot of it is capitalizing on our chances. Brandon’s goal last game was the only 2-on-1 that we had, but he capitalized on it.”
The third line isn’t being asked to play their normal shutdown defensive role, going head-to-head with the opposing team’s top offensive threats. Instead they’ve just been regularly rotated on the ice with the rest of the lineup.
Regardless of which players they play against, the team’s third line still has the same goal.
|Lee Stempniak |
“The key for us is playing whoever we’re out against – whether checking the other team’s top line or the other team’s third line – we have to drive the play into their end and not be on our heels defending,” Stempniak said. “We’re trying to score goals and drive possession. We just have to be responsible defensively. We’re not taking reckless chances. We have an aggressive mindset. We want to go and attack and play in their end.”
Though the current configuration may not be a typical third line – that of the grinding, physical variety – the Penguins’ trio can still play the body.
“We may not be the most physical guys, but we are more physical than people think,” Sutter said. “We’re all capable of going on the forecheck and being disruptive. We can hang onto the puck and play strong in the offensive zone. That’s the mentality we want to have.”
And there are advantages to having a third line that isn’t just a normal checking line. With the skill level of Bennett-Sutter-Stempniak the Penguins have three legitimate lines that contribute offensively – which is needed to win games in the postseason.
“When you win hockey games in the postseason you need to get it from all over,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “There are going to be different, non-suspecting heroes and performances in a game. You have to get it.”
The Penguins’ third line played the heroes in Game 1 against Columbus.
“(Sutter) comes up with a huge goal for us, puck on his stick, 2-on-1, Bennett going to the net, he scores a huge goal for us,” Bylsma said. “You need to get it from all over. Can’t just expect it from one person or two people. We got it from Brandon Sutter last game.”
The Penguins’ third line is breaking the mold of the traditional checking line and has given Pittsburgh three lines of speedy, scoring threats while still being strong defensively.
“That’s a testament to the depth we have as a team. We have a lot of guys that are capable of making plays and contributing offensively,” Stempniak said. “It allows us to play more guys and roll over lines and hopefully sustain more time in the offensive zone and wearing teams down.”