Third-line dance likely to continue for Penguins



Penguins coach Dan Bylsma entered Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against Columbus fully expecting to use more than one left winger on his third line.

He just didn't necessarily anticipate that Beau Bennett would be one of them.

Considering how Bennett fit in with Brandon Sutter and Lee Stempniak in the 4-3 victory Wednesday night against the Blue Jackets at Consol Energy Center, it's hard to imagine he won't be back there for Game 2 Saturday night.

Which doesn't mean the assignment will be permanent.

Tanner Glass opened the series on Sutter's left side because of his physicality and responsible defensive game, but Bylsma had been prepared to replace him with Brian Gibbons if circumstances called for an upgrade in speed and skill.

Ultimately, though, Bylsma decided to drop Glass to the fourth line and move Gibbons into the spot Bennett had been filling alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.

That freed Bennett to join Sutter and Stempniak, a unit that became one of the most successful experiments since Benjamin Franklin tied a key to a kite and took it outside during a rainstorm.

Bylsma said the rationale for using Bennett there was "very similar" to the logic behind the plan he'd had to deploy Gibbons on that line.

Bennett, though, made any further changes needless, at least in the opener.

In addition to scoring the power-play goal that rejuvenated the Penguins after they had slipped into a 3-1 hole, he teamed up with Sutter on a two-on-one break that culminated in Sutter's winning goal.

It's revealing, though, that after the Penguins had gone in front, Bylsma returned Glass to the third line for a shift to guard against the possibility of Columbus pulling even again. That's pretty good evidence that Bylsma won't be shy about swapping left wingers on that line, if circumstances demand it.

Unlike some teams, the Penguins don't cast their third line in a traditional shutdown role.

That's because pitting Sutter's unit against the opposition's top line could keep Sutter and his linemates on the ice for about 20 minutes every game, and those are 20 minutes that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, along with their linemates, would have to spend watching from the bench.

"That's definitely something to think about," Glass said. "Those guys have to get their minutes."

Because the Penguins want to get Crosby and Malkin as much ice time as is practical, the third line is counted on for a solid two-way game, rather than just the stifling defense it might be asked to provide if it were serving in a shutdown role.

That helps to explain the makeup of the line at the start of Game 1.

"They have some scoring on that line," assistant coach Tony Granato said. "They do have some speed on that line. They do have some physicality on that line. [They're] hard to play against, using all three of those parts of the game.

"Lee's one of those guys who's kind of a streaky scorer and who, when he gets in a rhythm offensively, is a pretty darned good offensive player. [Sutter] is another guy who can score some goals.

"Tanner is a guy who's going to crash and bang, and, hopefully, create a lot of net-front presence, and create some stuff on the forecheck. I think it's a good combination."

Even without scoring the winning goal, Sutter's performance in Game 1 was one of his best of 2013-14.

His regular season had been lackluster, perhaps in part because his wingers constantly changed.

The frequent turnover on both sides was, to some extent, a byproduct of the many injuries the Penguins had since training camp because third-liners often are the most qualified fill-ins available when a top-six forward is unable to play.

"With the injuries and stuff, that's been one of the difficult things [for Sutter] because, generally speaking, those are the guys who usually move up or move around," Granato said.

"[Sutter] has been in a position where he's had lots of different combinations. I think he understands that's part of being in that position."

He undoubtedly also realizes that, while the details of the third line's duties might vary depending on the game situation, its bottom-line mission stays the same, regardless of whether Bennett or Glass or anyone else is working on the left side.

"Just to be a line that tries to make a difference every time we're out there," Stempniak said.


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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