With Phil Kessel line rolling, can anyone slow Penguins’ attack?
PITTSBURGH – Nick Bonino felt like anything but a hero in the third period of Game 6 on Tuesday night.
He took the second of three third-period delay of game penalties against the Pittsburgh Penguins in one of the strangest sequences in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. “I’ve never seen it in all the years I’ve been in the game, I’ll tell you that,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “It was a tough one to swallow.”
Especially for Bonino, who was in the box when John Carlson scored the tying goal for Washington, completing their three-goal rally to send it into overtime.
"It was the worst feeling I think I’ve ever had in hockey when I whacked the puck out of play,” said Bonino.
But agony and ecstasy were only separated by roughly 13 minutes and an intermission: Bonino ended the series with an overtime goal at 6:32, assisted by linemates Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel.
"I can’t put it into words right now. I’ve still got chills a little bit,” said Bonino after the 4-3 win, eliminating the Capitals. “That’s the best feeling in the game right there. To win a series and have your teammates around you in the corner.”
Bonino (a.k.a. “Bones”), Hagelin (a.k.a. “Haggy”) and Kessel (a.k.a. “Phil”) were the best line in Game 6, and a frightening reminder to current and future opponents of the Penguins’ offensive depth. Consider that the Penguins just won a playoff series in which Sidney Crosby didn’t score a goal and Evgeni Malkin didn’t have a point in the final four games.
“When we have the balance that we do, I think it prevents a lot of matchup challenges for our opponents. Sid’s line usually get the top defensive assignment. Geno’s line gets one as well. I think Bones’ line is a really good line. And they present a matchup challenge, and that’s one of the things as a coaching staff that we really like the makeup of our lines,” said Sullivan.
Hagelin now has four goals and four assists in 11 games. Bonino has two goals and eight assists in 11 games. Kessel now has five goals and seven assists in 11 games, making him the Penguins’ leading scorer in the playoffs.
The line is a prime example of the Penguins’ speed advantage over opponents this season – an advantage they have thanks to the system Sullivan plays, and thanks to the acquisitions made by general manager Jim Rutherford, who is responsible for all three players coming to Pittsburgh.
Hagelin, acquired during the season from the Anaheim Ducks, is the pace-setter: a player with blazing speed, if not known as a finisher. "They throw a lot of pucks to let him go 100 feet down the ice and track him down, so he's a difficult match because of his speed,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz.
Bonino, acquired from the Vancouver Canucks in a trade for Brandon Sutter, is the unsung player in the trio but perhaps the most complete player.
“Bones is a really good player. We use him in a lot of key situations,” said Sullivan. “He really sees the game very well. Both sides of the puck. Good faceoff guy, kills penalties for us, is on the power play.”
Kessel, acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer, is the most offensively accomplished and dangerous player of the three. Look no further than the two goals he sniped in Game 6: That classic wrist shot using a defender as a screen, and then that nasty dangle that drew goalie Braden Holtby out of his net before depositing the puck past him.
“Not too many guys can score that goal. Phil can,” said Sullivan of Kessel’s first goal.
Kessel now has goals in both of the Penguins’ series-clinching wins, which might be news for those who still inexplicably see him as an unmotivated offensive opportunist.
His coach, for the record, isn't one of them.
“When I see his game right now, I see a guy that has a high compete level. I think his ability to score big goals at key times is a great indication of it,” said Sullivan. “I think Phil is very competitive. In his way.”
This line is the quintessential representation for how it’s all come together for the Penguins in the second half of the season.
Three players whose speed is their greatest asset, in a coach’s system that demands it. Three players acquired by a general manager whose mandate was to upgrade the forward group. And in the case of Kessel, a player who never really found his groove in the top six who is now playing his best hockey on what’s allegedly the Penguins’ third line.
“It allows us to spread our talent a little bit, and makes us harder to play against,” said Sullivan.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, all anchoring their own scoring lines.
Pick your Penguins poison.
Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
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