When Mike Sullivan was asked the other day about his ‘second line,’ the head coach smiled.
“Which line is the second line?” he replied.
The reporter was asking about the trio of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, but the Pens don't rank their combinations. However, after Tuesday night, one word that can be used to describe that line is dominant.
Those three were the only names in the goal column in Pittsburgh’s 4-3 overtime series clinching victory against Washington on Tuesday at CONSOL Energy Center. Bonino netted the overtime winner, set up by both Kessel – who also scored twice – and Hagelin, who finished with three points (1G-2A).
“We had a good start to the series, and we were quiet the last couple games,” Bonino said. “We wanted to come out tonight and play hard. Phil plays well in big games, same with ‘Hagy.’ To be able to get some goals from us, we’re happy with that and ultimately to get that win.”
Bonino’s goal will certainly be the most memorable, as are most series-clinching overtime winners. It’s definitely one he’ll never forget.
“I can’t put it into words right now,” Bonino said. “I’ve still got chills a little bit. Just coming off the ice and pounding everyone, it’s a lot of fun. That’s the best feeling in the game right there. To win a series and have your teammates around you in the corner, it’s pretty fun.”
Tonight was quite the emotional rollercoaster for Bonino, considering the terrible luck he experienced in the third.
With less than 10 minutes left to play in regulation and the Pens holding onto a 3-2 lead, Chris Kunitz, Bonino and Ian Cole ended up taking three delay of game penalties in a row when their clearing attempts sailed over the glass.
The Caps ended up tying the game and forcing overtime. Fortunately, Bonino was able to get it back and swing to the other side of the emotional spectrum.
“It was the worst feeling I think I’ve ever had in hockey when I whacked the puck out of play and then ‘Coler’ did it after, after ‘Kuni’ did it,” Bonino said. “That’s something you’ll never see. I thought the kill on the ice did a great job.”
Cole, who was on the ice with Bonino when he tallied the winner, joked that he doesn’t even remember the goal and that everything was such a blur. For those who are in the same situation, Bonino explained how the play unfolded.
“Hagy drove the middle,” Bonino said. “Their D made a good play and Phil and Hagy went to work down low. I just went to the front and let them cycle. The puck always ends up there, and I was able to get a stick on it. It wasn’t pretty, but they’re usually not.”
While Bonino may have finished it, Kessel is the one who got it started.
He opened the scoring 5:41 into the first period when he roared down the far side and used Caps blueliner Karl Alzner as a screen to snap off a hard, low shot.
“The first goal he gets, he uses their defensemen as a screen,” Sullivan said. “Not too many guys can score that goal. Phil can.”
Kessel followed that up in the second period with the Pens on a four-minute power play after Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik drew blood on a high stick to Patric Hornqvist. After ringing one off the post, Kessel made a power move to the net where he stepped around Caps netminder Braden Holtby and tucked the puck in the cage.
“For me, when I see his game right now, I see a guy that has a high compete level. I think his ability to score big goals at key times is a great indication of it,” Sullivan said.
At this time last year, Kessel was watching the playoffs as his Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t qualify. Now, he leads the Pens in postseason scoring with five goals and 12 points in 11 games.
“A bit of a difference, right? I’m happy to be here,” Kessel said. “We have a great group here.”
And that group is certainly happy he’s a part of it.
“He’s a good guy,” Evgeni Malkin said. “He’s a little bit quiet; doesn’t talk too much. But we know he’s good. He has speed and he has a shot. The first goal is an unbelievable shot. We try to help him, support him, he’s a very important guy.”
And last but not least, Hagelin was the Pens' best and most consistent forward all game. He earned an assist on Kessel’s first goal by coming down low to be an option on the breakout, skate the puck out and push it forward to his linemate.
Hagelin then followed up Kessel’s second goal with one of his own while getting time on the second power-play unit during that same double minor to Orpik, and proceeded to set up Bonino's winner in overtime.
But Hagelin didn’t just make an impact on the scoresheet, where he led the Pens with seven total points (3G-4A) in the second round. He’s arguably the fastest guy in the NHL on any given night, but this evening it felt like he was at turbo speed – and he was using that to be a huge factor all over the ice, particularly negating icings, pressuring the Caps and helping his team get out of their end zone.
"Hagelin's got exceptional speed," Caps head coach Barry Trotz said. "They throw a lot of pucks to let him go 100 feet down the ice and track him down, so he's a difficult match because of his speed. Kessel's got great speed and he's got the release, and Bonino's a real underrated player. I thought their forward depth really came through in this for them."