Jean-Sebastien Dea’s go-ahead goal against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night was a happy story for the Pittsburgh Penguins in more ways than just being Dea’s first tally in the NHL. Dea’s goal, coming in his fourth NHL game, gives the Penguins hope that they have a chance at once again rolling out four solid lines on a team that has been floundering for depth.
Penguins’ Depth Struggles
The Penguins’ roster shifted last night as Ryan Reaves sat as a healthy scratch so that Bryan Rust could rejoin the roster for the first time in 2018 after almost a month on injured reserve. Slotted in on the fourth line alongside Dea, who as filling in as center in his fourth-ever NHL game, and Tom Kuhnhackl, who has plugged away on the bottom line for most of the season but hasn’t seen much time on the scoresheet, Rust almost immediately made an impact, setting up several real scoring chances and making the Penguins’ fourth line into the kind of threat it hasn’t been in quite a while.
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The Penguins have been a more consistent team of late since coming out of their bye week. Facing the possibility of fading from a playoff bubble team to sliding out of contention altogether, they’ve stepped it up, winning five out of the seven matches they’ve played since the break.
That return to consistency has been orchestrated by the Penguins’ big three: Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, who in the seven games since the bye week have racked up 10, 10 and 12 points, respectively. Out of the 25 goals the Penguins have scored since the bye week, Kessel, Crosby or Malkin have factored in on all but five of them— and one of those five was an empty-netter.
The Penguins have scored those 25 goals since the week off in a myriad of ways. There’s been one overtime winner, one empty-net goal and seven power-play goals; at even strength, most line combinations have contributed. But the Dea goal against the Hurricanes was the first and only goal put up by the Penguins’ fourth line.
A Positive Sign for the Penguins
A hot Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel can mean a hot Penguins team, but that might not necessarily provide the consistency they need to remain in a playoff spot. To maintain the improved win percentage they’ve been enjoying since the bye week, the Penguins need bottom-six scoring.
Coach Mike Sullivan clearly hasn’t been trusting the Penguins’ previous fourth line to carry that out. Reaves, who was a winger on the fourth line for all 49 games this season prior to his healthy scratch against the Hurricanes, often played only four minutes a game. That’s a fairly good indication of how much— or really, how little— this team has been relying on its bottom line.
If Rust’s return can spark a functional fourth line for the Penguins, that’s nothing but good news for the team. If Sullivan trusts the bottom line, he can lean on it a little more, taking away some pressure from the big guns.
Scoring depth will be necessary for the Penguins as they make their way through a second half of the season riddled with crucial divisional matchups that will put up stifling top-pair opponents against Crosby and Malkin. Dea’s goal against Carolina was a welcome voice from a fourth line that had been silent for quite some time.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.