Penguins' line combinations firm up as injured players return

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Evgeni Malkin has developed some chemistry with left winger Jussi Jokinen and got his right-hand man back Saturday when winger James Neal returned from a nearly season-long injury.

Sidney Crosby is in a comfort zone with long-time wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.

The linemates for those two elite Penguins centers are often a point of discussion, with concern about finding consistency.

Because of competition for spots and injuries, members of the team's other two lines haven't had that luxury.

Craig Adams knows all about that. He has been with the Penguins since March 2009, and has played wing and center with a variety of linemates. It has been mostly on the fourth line, although recently he has spent some time on the third line.

"Depending on the situation, it can help to play with the same guys -- or maybe one guy -- for an extended time," Adams said. "But at the same time, whenever there are injuries, they're always going to trickle down and affect the third and fourth lines as well. It's just sort of the nature of how things go.

"It's just the way it is with injuries. It seems like every other night you're with somebody else."

With Neal back -- he got an assist, his first point of the season, in the Penguins 2-1 loss to the Blues Saturday in St. Louis -- as well as winger Beau Bennett, who returned against the Blues after an 11-game injury hiatus, line combinations were as settled as they have been all season.

That meant that Adams was part of a fourth line combination that the Penguins liked early in the season but that had been broken up a lot as forwards moved around because of injuries. It features Tanner Glass at left wing, Joe Vitale at center and Adams at right wing.

Coach Dan Bylsma started that line against the Blues' fourth line.

"Through the first five games, six games, we had that [line together]," Bylsma said. "When we talked about the effectiveness of our fourth line, I don't think you're going to see them match the quality of a Crosby line or a Malkin line, but they were playing very well and [enabled us] to roll four [lines] and be effective.

"We counted on them -- and can count on them -- to play against just about anybody when they play the way we did early on in the season."

The only forward still out is Chuck Kobasew, who is on injured reserve, so it's possible Adams will remain with Glass and Vitale for a string of games.

If not, Adams could find himself in a different role again -- center, perhaps, or on the third line, where he has played some recently with center Brandon Sutter. Bennett and Matt D'Agostini played with Sutter Saturday, allowing the fourth line to reunite.

Adams, who also is one of the Penguins' primary penalty-killers, has gotten a little five-on-five ice time with Malkin and Crosby -- especially early in the season when the two top centers were sometimes double-shifted with members of the fourth line. He got his three goals in the first four games.

Not that he's averse to moving up to the third line at times.

"Certainly, if I get moved up and I get a chance to play a little bit more, I'm not going to be complaining about playing with different guys," he said. "The guys that are in the bottom six [forwards] have had some good games with everybody.

"I've been lucky to be given a really good opportunity and a chance to play in different situations. With the injuries so far this year, I've had a little bit of a bump in ice time, which is nice, but at the same time I'd love to have a full squad out there."

Adams, 36, has 34 hits and 16 blocked shots. He is averaging 12 minutes, 46 seconds of ice time, the most of his Penguins career, in part because of some time on the third line.

His place in the lineup might change some here and there, but he insisted that he does not.

"I don't have another game to change to," Adams said. "I would get into trouble if I need that. I try to play the same way, regardless of who I'm out there with."

He admitted only to a bit of tweaking at times.

"If I'm out there with [Crosby or Malkin], if I have a choice I'm going to pass them the puck and go. That's probably the only difference," he said.

Still, Adams is seen as a player who can slot in wherever he is needed.

"Sometimes you're adaptable out of necessity in life," Bylsma said. "In certain circumstances, players' attributes, what they bring, means in different parts of the game they'll be utilized more.

"Craig Adams is a great example of a guy who has gone up and checked on a third line, he's been used [with Malkin] in more offensive situations. As a result, Craig is viewed as versatile because he has been able to do that."

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NOTE -- The Penguins had a day off Sunday.

Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.


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