Mission not accomplished: Penguins' hunt continues for set 3rd, 4th lines

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When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, they had what arguably was the best third line in the NHL.

Five years later with the chase for another Cup set to begin next week, their third line is, well, ask them in five minutes. That's when it's apt to change again.

Same goes for their fourth line.

Before this season, at times during the season and as recently as a couple of weeks ago, coach Dan Bylsma said sorting out roles and combinations for the bottom six forwards -- particularly the third line -- was a team priority.

It hasn't happened.

"What our lineup is for Game 1 [of the playoffs], I don't think is set," Bylsma said this week, specifically addressing the third and fourth lines.

While going into the playoffs with such things unsettled isn't ideal, there's not one place to point fingers.

Players have frequently shifted roles and spots on those lines, perhaps in part because of performance and chemistry issues, but mostly because of an epidemic of injuries that has swelled the man-games lost total to more than 500 going into the next-to-last regular-season game Saturday against Philadelphia.

The idea of set lines appeals to Taylor Pyatt, a winger who has moved around since the Penguins claimed him off of waivers from the New York Rangers Jan. 2.

"Yeah, in a perfect world, but that never really seems to happen," he said. "There are so many injuries and guys in and out of the lineup. You've got to be comfortable playing with anyone and in different spots in the lineup."

That has been a recurring theme, even for the bottom-six forwards who have been with the Penguins all season.

"There have been a few of us rotating around, playing with everybody," two-way center Brandon Sutter said. "We know what our roles are. We know our jobs. When people go down, it's an opportunity for other people to step up. We've done a pretty good job of that so far.

"Obviously, in the playoffs, we're going to need that. It's going to be crucial to have that depth scoring from the bottom six, and we've got to try to provide that as much as we can."

Sutter and Craig Adams are rare exceptions among the third- and four-line forwards. They have played in all 80 games this season. Others have been in an out of the lineup because of injuries or up and down between the Penguins and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, their American Hockey League affiliate.

Twenty players have spent at least one game in one of the six spots on the third or fourth line.

Sutter, who has 13 goals, 26 points, is a key player for the Penguins behind their superstars. His role as third-line center was set from the moment he was part of the June 2012 trade that sent former third-line center Jordan Staal to Carolina. Finding him regular wingers, as Staal had for several seasons, was a goal for this season, one that got gutted.

The members of the third line from the Cup team -- left winger Matt Cooke, Staal and right winger Tyler Kennedy -- have left through trades or free agency over the past two offseasons and are playing in Minnesota, Carolina and San Jose, respectively.

Sutter has echoed Bylsma most of the season, saying he would benefit from finding regular wingers, but that has proven impossible.

"We've kind of rotated everyone everywhere," Sutter said. "There really hasn't been anything set, but, again, with a couple more injuries, it sure changes everything every week, it seems like.

"We've done a good job of just trying to stay consistent. It obviously is tough at times. Hopefully, we can get something going here."

With just two games left, and the possibility that the Penguins will rest some players, continuity might have to wait until postseason, if then. Three bottom-six forwards -- Marcel Goc, Joe Vitale and Chris Conner -- could return from injury during the first round.

Bylsma noted that in the past couple of weeks the Penguins "have been experimenting and having different roles for those lines."

In the past couple of games, Sutter has played with wingers Tanner Glass and Lee Stempniak. In the 3-2 shootout win Sunday at Colorado, with several regulars out of the lineup, those three were used in a checking-line role, and Bylsma liked what he saw.

"They might have been our second line in that particular game [because of players missing from the lineup], but that would be something we would look at setting up for playoff possibilities," Bylsma said.

Subject to change, of course.

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

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