BUFFALO, N.Y. --There are a couple of very strict criteria that must be met before Penguins coach Michel Therrien will consider changing the makeup of his forward lines.
No. 1. Therrien must be awake.
No. 2 ... OK, maybe there's just one.
Fact is, Therrien seems hard-wired to reconfigure his line combinations almost anytime the Penguins sputter or stumble.
Sometimes, his logic is obvious and difficult to dispute, like when he pairs Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin if the Penguins need to jump-start their offense. On other occasions, the switches seem rather unnecessary, or at least premature.
In any case, it's clear that aggressively shuffling the personnel on his lines is a core tenet of Therrien's coaching philosophy. That is why it's significant that, while Therrien has deployed his forwards in almost every conceivable combination during the past few weeks, the one group that has remained intact is his third line, which features Jordan Staal between Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.
It's unlikely the line will remain intact for the next decade or so -- with Therrien, a unit's shelf life usually is easier measured in minutes than months -- but it isn't an accident that Cooke, Staal and Kennedy have remained together for several weeks.
"Whether it's a big goal or a big hit or creating a turnover, they've done a number of good things for us," assistant coach Mike Yeo said.
"They all are aggressive on the forecheck and are willing to get pucks behind [the opponents'] defense and use the forecheck to create scoring chances and build momentum for the team. They're all content to work hard in the offensive zone, use the cycle and control the puck down low."
- Game: Penguins (13-5) at Sabres (10-8), 7:30.
- Where: HSBC Arena, Buffalo, NY.
- TV: FSN.
The offensive output of Staal's line has declined of late, as the Penguins prepare to face Buffalo at 7:38 tonight at HSBC Arena. Kennedy doesn't have a goal in the past seven games, while Staal has gone scoreless in four and Cooke in three.
Then again, that line isn't counted on to be a major contributor to the offense. While the Penguins need steady production from the units centered by Crosby and Malkin, having Staal and his linemates chip in occasionally should be enough.
"All of us can score goals," Staal said.
Staal and Kennedy logged considerable ice time together last season, and Cooke, signed as a free agent in July, has proved to be a good fit with them, on and off the ice.
"When I first got here, those are the two guys I spent some time with, would go out for dinner with and got to know on a personal level," Cooke said.
Although Staal and Kennedy are relatively quiet away from the ice, at least when people other than their teammates are around, they aren't shy about speaking up during games, and Cooke figures that's a big factor in their success.
"I try to communicate as much as I can," he said. "I find it makes the game easier. I want both of them to yell at me when I'm on the ice. I'll never take it personally. I want that feedback, that info."
Cooke did not have a goal in his first 11 games this season but, not long after being united with Staal and Kennedy, scored twice in three games. While those goals weren't enough to alter his job description -- "Obviously, I'm not a guy who scores every game," he said -- the confidence they spawned had a predictable impact on other facets of his game.
"With confidence, when you get the puck, instead of just getting rid of it, you want to skate with it, get your head up, look to make plays," Cooke said.
"Right now, the three of us are all at that point where we're looking for each other, we want to make plays and help this team offensively."
And, in the process, give Therrien reason to keep them together for a while longer.
NOTES -- With center Max Talbot unlikely to play tonight because of an injured left foot, the Penguins recalled winger Janne Pesonen from their farm team in Wilkes-Barre. Pesonen, who made his NHL debut Nov. 1 in St. Louis, is the Baby Penguins' No. 3 scorer, with five goals and 16 assists in 19 games.
Dave Molinari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published November 28, 2008 5:00 AM