The Penguins had what a lot of people regarded as the finest third line in the NHL last season.
In 2010-11, they might have a No. 3 unit with the potential to be the league's most annoying.
OK, perhaps -- perhaps, mind you -- there have been a few lines less pleasant to play against than Matt Cooke-Max Talbot-Arron Asham over the years, but not many.
"I wouldn't want to play against us, that's for sure," Talbot said. "As an opposing team, you look at this line like, 'I don't want to play against that line. It's not going to be fun tonight.' "
Although it is not guaranteed that those three will work together this season -- the Penguins' forward combinations still are coming together as they prepare to face Chicago in a preseason game at 7:08 tonight at Consol Energy Center -- they meshed nicely in a 5-4 victory in Columbus Friday.
Which is to say, they made life miserable for the Blue Jackets pretty much every time they went over the boards. The most obvious evidence of that can be found on Cooke's swollen lower lip, where a 12-stitch gash is the by-product of a high stick that earned Columbus defenseman Rostislav Klesla a double-minor.
"In terms of an energy line, in terms of a grinding line, Cooke, Talbot and Asham could certainly be that kind of line for our team," coach Dan Bylsma said.
"It has a little bite to it. Toughness and grit and guys who all play the game a similar way. As a third line, that certainly is a possibility."
Asham, of course, famously accused Cooke of having a bit too much bite in his game last season, when he publicly accused Cooke of sinking his teeth into him while Asham played for Philadelphia. Both now insist that incident is behind them, and that their hostilities will be directed solely at opposing players.
Opponents who, it seems safe to say, will not run into another group quite like Cooke-Talbot-Asham when facing any of the league's other 28 clubs.
"There are players that remind you of individual players," Cooke said, chuckling, "but to see three guys like that on the same line, probably not."
What separates the Cooke-Talbot-Asham unit from most lines designed to antagonize rival players is that the Penguins' group can be trusted to take a regular shift, with members who can contribute at both ends of the ice.
There are lines around the NHL that feature harder hitters or more feared fighters, but they generally don't have the skill to go over the boards more than a half-dozen times or so in a given game.
"Usually, it's a fourth line that's not really quick and is annoying to play [against], but is not going to get out there much," Talbot said. "For us, the three guys can actually play, can hit, can scrap and can talk."
Talbot, whose 2009-10 season never got on track after he underwent shoulder surgery last summer, managed just two goals then, but had been good for 12 or 13 in each of the previous three years. Cooke, meanwhile, put up a career-high 15 last year, while Asham threw in 10 for the Flyers.
None of those guys will challenge Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos for the Rocket Richard Trophy, but all can do more with their stick than simply whack the back of an opponent's legs with it.
"The one thing I probably would say that all three of us don't get credit for is our ability to produce offensively," Cooke said. "If we're together, we'll obviously bring an element to the game that's been a staple for all three of us."
Fair enough, but it is not their ability to put up points that might lead to other clubs posting "Wanted" posters of them in their locker rooms. Or being tempted to offer a bounty on one of them now and then.
Because all three play with an edge, they tend to stray outside the rules on occasion. (Perhaps, gasp, even by design every now and then.)
And while they're quite willing to hit and poke and prod opponents to disrupt their focus, all three have proven they can get a reaction with a well-timed insult, too. Heck, Talbot said Cooke can get an opponent's blood pressure to spike simply by making eye contact.
"I think Cookie's face ... it's not so much about talking," Talbot said. "It's an annoying face. It's not an ugly face, it's an annoying face."
One that opponents might be seeing, along with those of Asham and Talbot, in their nightmares until sometime next spring.