Staal returns to center a production line
Jordan Staal, right, celebrates with linemate Matt Cooke after scoring a first-period goal Tuesday against the Detroit Red WIngs at Consol Energy Center.
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Less than a year ago, a lot of people regarded this group as the best third line in hockey.
And with good reason.
A couple of good reasons, actually.
Like how Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy didn't play together this season until a couple of weeks ago, at least in part because Staal missed the first 39 games while recovering from a foot infection and broken hand.
What's more, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin removed from the Penguins' talent pool because of injuries, it's rather silly to think of any unit centered by Staal as a No. 3 line.
Labels, though, are easy to apply and peel off. Results are what make reputations, and Staal and his linemates have produced some pretty fair ones during the six games in which they've been reunited.
The Penguins are 4-2 since then, and all three members of the line have complemented good overall performances with solid offensive production. In those half-dozen games, Staal has three goals and four assists, Kennedy one goal and three assists and Cooke one goal and two assists.
"All three of us are excited when we're out there together," Cooke said. "It's fun. It's exciting. You feel like you're going to be successful every night."
That's understandable, because they usually are. Have been most of the time since they started playing together, for that matter.
But even though Staal, Cooke and Kennedy had worked together a lot before this season, it was striking how little time they needed to mesh upon being reunited after being apart for about eight months. Might as well have been eight hours.
"For whatever reason, it doesn't matter when it is or how long they haven't played together," said assistant coach Tony Granato, who oversees the Penguins' forwards. "It just seems to come back automatically where there's a chemistry."
Chemistry is something every effective line has: Unless its members know what to expect from each other, the unit probably is destined for failure. And a quick breakup.
The Cooke-Staal-Kennedy line, though, seems to have something that transcends chemistry. It's more of a synergy, in which each member's game is elevated by the others and the total of the group is greater than the sum of its parts.
"They're so familiar with each other, how each other plays," Granato said. "It's kind of an automatic."
While members of the line share a few traits -- they all do a good job of protecting the puck and creating space for themselves in the offensive end, for example -- they hardly are clones.
Kennedy's speed and quickness make him an effective forechecker, Staal has the size and skill to be a dominant power forward. Cooke never passes on a chance to finish a check.
"I think we understand the way all of us play," Staal said.
Their effectiveness stems from more than just that, however.
"Our strongest asset as a group is our willingness and ability to communicate, to talk," Cooke said. "Not just on the ice, when we're out there, but when we come off, to make sure we're on the same page and understand what we're trying to accomplish as a group."
How much longer they'll remain together is impossible to predict. While it's hard to imagine that coach Dan Bylsma would separate them, based on recent performances, the coaching staff seems intent on seeing whether Malkin can be effective on the wing.
The plan heading into the season was to have him play on Staal's right side, and that experiment began this month. It hardly is out of the question that Staal and Malkin will be put together again when Malkin returns from his left knee injury.
"Dan has options on the bench," Granato said. "The thing that makes us tough to play against is that there can be different combinations out there at any time.
"You can always make adjustments as the game goes on, and that's what Dan's strength has been, being able to get the right guys on the ice at the right time. I think he has more [flexibility] on the bench.
"Obviously, when you've got [Staal's current] line playing well, it's a nice thing to have in your back pocket."
First Published January 24, 2011 12:00 am