The Pens held an optional morning skate at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Wednesday prior to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning.
The only two players that did not participate were Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, both of whom opted to skate in Tuesday’s practice instead.
"WE REALLY LIKED THAT LINE"
The line of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin has been getting much of the attention lately, and deservedly so as they found the back of the net yet again in Game 2 – which means they have yet to go more than two-straight games without one of the three scoring a goal (regular season or playoffs) since being put together on March 13.
"Any time you can play with the same guys for a longer time it’s going to help the chemistry within the lines," Hagelin said. "Just overall, it gives you confidence that if I’m doing everything I can tonight I know my linemates are going to do the same and I know where they’re going to be. By doing that, you can play a lot faster."
However, another trio for the Pens that was going just as strong that night was the combination of Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr – who opened the scoring for Pittsburgh.
Fehr slotted onto the right wing that night in place of Bryan Rust, who moved up to play alongside Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin. And the move paid immediate dividends, as head coach Mike Sullivan said that the veteran forward might have had his best game of the postseason.
“He brought a lot of energy,” Sullivan said. “He was forcing turnovers. He was hard to play against. He was on the puck. He was strong on the boards. So I thought he had one of his strongest games in the postseason the last game and obviously we really liked the line. Not only did they score for us, but they’re hard to play against. I think they wear teams down. They’re very good in their end zone.”
That’s perhaps the most impressive thing about that line – they start the majority of their shifts in Pittsburgh’s defensive zone, which means they have to go the full length of the ice before they can even start to wear teams down.
“When you’re out there with Cully you know he’s going to win the faceoff most of the time and we have a plan of getting the puck out of our own end,” Kuhnhackl said. “Trying to chip it in and then us getting in on the forecheck, that’s the thing we’ve got to do and I think we did a pretty good job last game.”
It helps that once they’re down there, Kuhnhackl (who stands at 6-foot-2) and Fehr (who measures out at 6-foot-4) can use their size to create room for each other.
“’Fehrsy’ and me are big bodies,” Kuhnhackl said. “We’ve been trying to protect the puck down low, creating spaces for each other. Hopefully we can do that again tonight.”
THIS ‘N AT
Phil Kessel on his line: “I think you we played together long enough now that you know where the other guys are and you go play hockey. We’ve played together a decently long time. You are used to where guys are going and where they’re going to be and what the like. That’s always a positive.”
Kessel on double shifting: “You always want to get out there as much as possible. Whenever you play more you have a better feel for the game and have better legs. It just depends on how the night’s going.”
Conor Sheary on bouncing back: “I know (Game 2) wasn’t my best game. I need to be better in this one.”
Carl Hagelin on Kessel: “He’s a great guy. I sit next to him in the locker room and he definitely eases things up. He makes hockey not seem as serious and sometimes when you don’t overthink things it makes the game easier and that’s something he’s brought into my warmup, or whatever you want to call it, before games. He’s definitely joking around and just calms me down a little bit before games. ... Once the puck drops, he’s serious. On the bench, he’s serious. And I think that’s what makes him such a big player in big games.”
Nick Bonino on Pens’ fans: “Pittsburgh fans travel really well. I know playing on other teams and when we would play Pittsburgh there would always be fans there. A playoff game like this, I’m sure there will be some. But I know this rink has passionate fans themselves and they’ll be loud for the Lightning.”
Head coach Mike Sullivan on Jim Rutherford: “He’s done a terrific job as far as retooling the roster and giving the coaching staff the means to play the way we want to play. When you look at the guys Jim’s acquired over the last nine, 10 months, they’re all guys that have allowed us to establish the identity that we have to this day. They can skate. They’re puck movers. They like to play with the puck. They allow us to play a speed game that suits the core players that are here. Jim’s done a good job of identifying then and then trying to surround those guys with some role players that allow those guys to play that style of play.”
BOLTS PRACTICE INFO
The Lightning held an optional morning skate as well. Notable absentees were Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin, Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop. Ryan Callahan, who missed Game 2 with the flu, did skate and will be available for Game 3.
Bolts head coach Jon Cooper told the media that Bishop skated today, working on going up and down, but would not dress for tonight’s matchup. The team hopes he will practice Thursday and hasn’t ruled out his return in Game 4.
“After today’s game we’re teetering on whether he can be back or not,” Cooper said. “He has been making gradual steps everyday. He was going up and down today on his pads. Hopefully it’s soon.
“Hopeful is the key word.”
One player that will certainly return for the Lightning is forward Ryan Callahan after missing the Bolts’ 3-2 overtime loss in Game 2.
“I got sick and didn’t feel well enough to play,” Callahan said. “(Felt it) a little bit the night before. Then overnight is when it really hit.”
Callahan had previously played in a postseason game after having his appendix removed and he joked to his head coach that he couldn’t believe the flu sidelined him for a game.
“That kid is tough as nails,” Cooper said. “He was (upset) and he said, ‘Last year I played a game three days after getting my appendix out and this year I can’t even fight through the (darn) flu.’ That must have been a bad flu bug.”
STRALMAN LOVES PLAYING PITTSBURGH
Bolts defenseman Anton Stralman returned to the lineup from a leg injury against the Pens for Game 2, and of course, he found the back of the net.
Stralman had nine goals in 73 regular-season games this year for Tampa. He scored four of those nine in three games against Pittsburgh.
Even he couldn’t explain why he has had so much success against the Pens this season.
“No, no. I have no idea (laughs),” Stralman said. “Just a fluke, I guess.”
Hagelin, who played with his fellow Swede for three seasons with the New York Rangers, also had to smile when asked about Stralman's success against the Pens.
"I know, he’s not a goal scorer but he’s finding a way against us so we’ve got to make sure we’re on him," Hagelin said. "He’s a very smart player and he knows how to find those open seams. So he’s a guy we have to make sure we’re playing hard when he’s on the ice and making sure we’re coming back hard on the backcheck."