Penguins' Stempniak meshes quickly as right winger on Crosby-Kunitz line
March 13, 2014 5:34 AM
Lee Stempniak takes a shot on Washington Capitals goalie Jaroslav Halak, at Consol Energy Center.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One practice, one game-day skate. Outside of the four games he already packed in, that's the extent of on-ice time winger Lee Stempniak has had to work on drills and go over systems with the Penguins since he was acquired from Calgary in a trade last week.
That hasn't seemed to stall Stempniak's acclimation. He has found a spot as the top-line right winger with center Sidney Crosby and left winger Chris Kunitz, has three assists, seven shots, five hits and five blocked shots.
"We're all getting used to each other," Crosby said. "We're all trying to be strong on the puck and use our speed. He's making a lot happen."
That was particularly true in the past two games, a Penguins sweep of back-to-back outings against Washington that led into a day off Wednesday.
Monday, Stempniak and Crosby each assisted on two Kunitz goals in a 3-2 win at Washington. Tuesday, Stempniak, in his Penguins home debut, assisted on Crosby's insurance goal, had three shots and three hits.
"It's been a pretty quick learning-by-fire here," Stempniak said. "The big thing is just trying to make sure I'm playing my game, but, at the same time, complement my linemates. Part of that is skating and trying to shoot the puck, hang onto the puck in the offensive zone. It's coming a bit more quickly now."
It wasn't clear whether the Penguins would be able to address the need for a right winger on Crosby's line at the NHL trade deadline. Pascal Dupuis is out for the season after knee surgery. A possible replacement, Beau Bennett, has been out since before Thanksgiving because of a wrist injury.
But perhaps the Penguins did that. Stempniak, 31, quickly has picked up a lot of insight about playing with Crosby, who leads the NHL with 88 points and has had a lot of wingers in his career.
"It's gone pretty well," Stempniak said. "The three of us on the bench just have an open dialogue on what each other is thinking. Part of if for me is trying not to force the puck to Sid too much. I think the first couple of games I'd get it and try and throw it to him. He's covered sometimes. He's a great player, but it's not always the right play to give it to him."
Stempniak has found that Crosby isn't like other centers he has played with.
"He thinks the game like no one else," he said. "The thing that jumps out at me is he's able to pick pucks up at full speed no matter where they are. He doesn't break stride. He's able to drive the attack and create a lot of speed and a lot of room for the second wave of the attack."
At times, Crosby's play has left Stempniak shaking his head.
"He makes a lot of great passes," Stempniak said. "[Tuesday], I missed a puck through the crease that I just sort of realized it a second late. I was trying to back out the back door, and it came before I could adjust. That's on me to be able to recognize that."
Other times, they have clicked.
"It's sometimes the simple plays, smart plays that work well with Crosby," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We saw the goal in Washington where the play comes up the wall, and he makes a good, hard play on the puck and gets it back to Sid with speed. It turns into a Kunitz goal.
"He's played hard on pucks. He's won pucks. He's been able to support the puck. And they've been able to get good plays, offensive zone time because of it."
Tuesday, Stempniak had a particularly strong shift in the second period.
Carrying the puck up the right-wing wall, he eluded Capitals defenseman Dmitri Orlov in the neutral zone and found himself one-on-one against Capitals defenseman Connor Carrick. He made a slick move to get around Carrick as he cut through the right circle and got off a backhander, only to be stopped by goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
Seconds later, Stempniak was just above the crease when a shot by Brooks Orpik hit Orlov and popped up. Stempniak batted the puck out of the air, but it rang off of the crossbar behind Halak.
"It would have been nice to at least put one of those in, but, hopefully, it's coming soon," he said.
That sequence brought a roar from yet another sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center.
"The fans are awesome here," Stempniak said. "It's a really fun place to play. The way we started the game, I don't know if that's how the Penguins always play here, but we got into it and the fans got into it, and it was great to have that momentum and keep it going. I think people respect hard work. I'm from Buffalo, and Pittsburgh seems to be from the same mold. It's that hard-working mentality that people appreciate. It's nice to be recognized like that."
In the third period, Orlov, at the left point, attempted to keep the puck in Washington's end, but Stempniak tied him up -- bulldozed him, really -- which allowed Crosby to get the puck, take off and score off of a two-on-one. On that play, the two new linemates were in sync.
"I knew he was going to play the guy," Crosby said. "I was just trying to be a little patient, not knowing where the puck was going to bounce. Just tried to stay underneath it. It just kind of laid there and gave me a chance. He tied the guy up, and I was able to poke it. It wasn't the nicest play we had all night, but it worked out well."
As Bylsma said, simple plays by Crosby's linemates can go a long way, and Stempniak is figuring out which ones to make and when.
■ Game: Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers in the first of a home-and-home series, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.
■ When: 1 p.m. Saturday.
■ TV: Root Sports.
■ Of note: The teams also play at 12:30 p.m. Sunday in Consol Energy Center.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly First Published March 13, 2014 12:51 AM
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