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"Third Line" Ranks Among NHL's Top Trios

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
In a day and age where three players skating together over an extended period is about as likely as a season of “The Bachelor” concluding free of controversy, the Penguins line of Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy continues to be the exception rather than the rule.

They might not have the fancy moniker like the Z-Z-Pop trio of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner in New Jersey.

They can’t match the individual hardware accumulated by Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Danny Heatley in San Jose.

And, unlike the Vancouver Canucks top unit, this line isn’t comprised of the league’s scoring leader (Henrik Sedin), reigning No. 1 star of the week (Alexandre Burrows) and a 31-goal scorer (Daniel Sedin) from last season.

None of that matters to head coach Dan Bylsma. He wouldn’t trade Staal, Cooke and Kennedy for any in the league.

While these other lines have strengths which lie mostly in their ability to put pucks in the net, the Penguins’ “third line” brings elements to the table which makes them unique to any trio in the league – they play a complete game covering all 200 feet of the rink.

“I would say they are probably the best line positionally and structurally, being in the right spots for each other, which leads to getting more pucks in the offensive zone and then keeping them there,” Bylsma said. “They have been very good cycling, moving their feet and maintaining possession and reading off each other. They consistently get shifts which last 30-40 seconds in the offensive zone.”

On the Penguins recent five-game road swing they led the way offensively with a combined 11 points (4G-7A) over the final three games. The trio was at their best against the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 14 as Staal picked up a career-high three helpers and Kennedy and Cooke picked up the Penguins’ first two tallies in what became a 3-2 come-from-behind victory.

“That line is a big part of our success,” Sidney Crosby said. “They play against top lines. You see them contribute each and every game. They are a big part of our success and they had a great trip.”

“I just think we are out there trying to be as consistent as possible,” Cooke said. “Our strength is to cycle the puck and be in the offensive zone and spend most of our time down there. We want to spend time in the offensive zone. With that comes scoring chances and getting on the board. We were able to do that on the trip.

“Staalsy really gives our line the ability to be able to do that by getting us out of our end in a hurry. He is so dependable down there.”

Staal led the way in the comeback over the Oilers by using his 6-foot-4 frame to his advantage in the near corner to outmuscle Andrew Cogliano for the puck and then placing a pass in Kennedy’s wheelhouse to get the Penguins on the board 3:18 into the final period.

Three-and-a-half minutes later the efforts of Staal and Cooke allowed the Penguins to draw even.

With the Penguins on the power play, Staal carried the puck over the Edmonton blue line and fired a low, high-velocity wrist shot towards goalie Devan Dubnyk, who had trouble controlling it. Cooke, who has spent the first extensive action on the power play in recent weeks, was Johnny-on-the-spot to deposit the rebound into the cage.

“I was hoping (a power-play goal) would come a little bit sooner than it did,” Cooke said. “I figured it would be a tip or a rebound. Scoring on a rebound off the rush is just as good.”

There was still work to be done, however, so Staal and Cooke continued their line’s big night by combining to set up Pascal Dupuis for the game-winner.

Cooke dumped the puck behind the Edmonton net and Staal once again won a one-on-one battle against Cogliano by beating him to the biscuit. Staal then centered a pass off the shin pads of Dupuis for what turned out to be the decisive score.

The win allowed the Penguins to improve to 19-9-1 when either Staal, Cooke or Kennedy records a points, including a perfect 8-0 record when the trio combines for two or more goals.

Kennedy was impressed by how his center took over in the final frame.

“He came out and you could tell he was on a mission to win that game,” Kennedy said. “He played big and that is what we need from him.”

Kennedy also gave the Penguins what they need by shaking off a recent scoring slump as his opening goal in Edmonton followed one the previous night in Calgary.

“I thought I had a pretty good road trip,” Kennedy said. “I thought I played pretty well. I just want to keep it going. Pucks were going in for me but I just tried to shoot as much as I could.”

Their offensive exploits helped the Penguins to a successful road trip. Now, with the high-flying Washington Capitals and two-time reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin heading into town, the Penguins will need to rely on the defensive prowess of the Staal line to take down one of their biggest rivals.

Staal understands the enormous challenge checking Ovechkin presents, so he says the key is to contain the high-scoring Russian rather than totally focusing on shutting him down.

“He is a player you just want to contain – he is tough to stop,” Staal said. “We just want to limit him as much as we can and take away his time and space. That is the biggest thing.”

Cooke, who spent the tail end of the 2007-08 campaign as a teammate of Ovechkin with Washington, agreed that his line needs to focus on eliminating the amount of room Ovechkin has to display his creativity.

“I think you have to be aware of where Ovechkin is on the ice,” Cooke said. “I think that might be more so than any other line. With some of the others you can get away with not paying so much attention to one guy but I think you have to make sure you know where he is on the ice because if he gets the chance to shoot the puck he is going to. You want to deny him that time and space.”

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