A Brief Recap
At one point in time in recent Pittsburgh Penguins’ history, the combination of Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz was not the favorite line in Pittsburgh. Nor was it any combination of winger with Evgeni Malkin over the last several seasons. There was one line that was truly dominate, one line that could change the momentum of a game in seconds.
Enter Tyler Kennedy, Jordan Staal, and Matt Cooke, aka “The Third Line”. Needless to say, the name was not the most creative. Their combination of speed, size, and grit were a difficult match-up for any team when they faced the Penguins. The opposing squads would often find themselves frustrated taking on the trio that at times were clearly the most in-sync players on the team.
After disappointing playoff performances in the 2010, 2011, and 2012 campaigns, the implosion of the third line began, as Jordan Staal was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2012 NHL Draft in exchange for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin, and a first-round pick (Derrick Pouliot). Following the 2013 season, Tyler Kennedy was traded to San Jose shortly before the NHL Draft and Matt Cooke would sign as a free agent with the Minnesota Wild that July.
The third line was gone, or so Penguins fans thought. The acquisition of Brandon Sutter was the first piece in re-establishing the depth that the Penguins had been searching for since the heyday of the first “The Third Line.”
The Building Blocks
Coming into the 2014-15 off-season, a main concern for the Pittsburgh Penguins was their depth at the forward position. With Brandon Sutter’s contract up, along with Tanner Glass, Joe Vitale, Brian Gibbons, Lee Stempniak, Marcel Goc, and Jussi Jokinen, the Penguins would be searching for role players that would be able to contribute on a regular basis. At the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia, the Penguins traded left wing sniper James Neal to the Nashville Predators for Nick Spaling and Patric Hornqvist. While the deal was not one to make a ton of cap room, it did in fact start their rebuild.
Hornqvist, a proven 20-30 goal scorer every year when healthy, was an immediate fixture on the top lines; who he would be playing with at the time still remained a mystery. Spaling, however, was a gritty forward that had put up some decent numbers (40G, 44A) during his 297 games in the Music City. He was the second piece of the new third line puzzle, the only problem going into the season was he was not currently under contract, sitting in the same position as Brandon Sutter as a restricted free agent. That would change on July 31st when the Penguins and Spaling agreed to two-year, $4.4 million dollar contract.
Almost a week following the draft, the Penguins signed agitating, yet skilled forward Steve Downie to a one-year, $1 million dollar contract. The polarizing figure, who split time with the Colorado Avalanche and rival Philadelphia Flyers the season previous, was an intriguing sign for newly minted Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford. Downie brings a tenacious, in-your-face attitude that had been missing from the Penguins for quite some time. He was the last piece of the puzzle. Now, the puzzle needed to be completed.
That event took place on August 5th when Brandon Sutter signed a two-year, $6.6 million dollar contract. The pieces were in place and comparisons could be drawn to “The Third Line” from seasons past. What mattered most to Penguins fans though was their production on the ice.
The New “The Third Line”
The Penguins began their 2014-15 campaign hosting the Anaheim Ducks, a mighty test for their first game following their 40% overhaul in the off-season. The challenge did not deter the Penguins as they came away with the 6-4 victory, but something was noticeable in that contest. No, not Sidney Crosby’s two goals. No, not Pascal Dupuis’ four points and no, not even Olli Maatta’s three assist night. What Penguins fans saw that evening, October 9th, was the glimpse of a third line that could pose to be a threat all season long.
Brandon Sutter’s two goals in as many games to start the season was the flame to ignite the third line. When he was first acquired, it was easy to draw comparisons between he and Jordan Staal. Both were tall, lanky players with exceptional vision, a good shot, and a rich family history in the NHL. What Sutter lacks in size and weight to Staal, he makes up for with his speed. Both players are good on faceoffs and are permanent fixtures on their respective penalty killing units. While Staal is currently on injured reserve after breaking his leg in the preseason, Sutter is red hot for the Penguins, accumulating eight points (4G, 4A) in 12 games.
It took Nick Spaling until the October 22nd contest versus the Philadelphia Flyers to score his first goal and assist with the new club, but it is what he does without the puck that makes him standout on the ice. Similar to Tyler Kennedy, both are diminutive forwards who use their speed on the forecheck to get offense established. Puck possession is key for the third line as they wear down the oppositions defense and attempt to draw penalties for the big guns like Crosby, Malkin, and career long teammate, Patric Hornqvist. Spaling has been getting more ice time in the last five contests, averaging over 15 minutes a game compared to his first five games where he saw an average of slightly over 13 minutes. The more he can contribute offensively is a bonus, just like it was when Tyler Kennedy….Kennedy scored alongside Staal and Cooke.
If you’re a Penguins’ fan, what is there not to like about Steve Downie? He and Matt Cooke are a breed that the saying “Hate to play against them, but love to have them on your team” suits perfectly. Both are smaller forwards who play a north-south game and are put on the ice to tilt the momentum, one way or another. While Matt Cooke is more of a pest, one who chirps and agitates the other team, Downie is more willing to drop the gloves. He will stand up for his star teammates if he feels liberties are being taken against them. Both players are also skilled offensively, a trait that seemed to get lost behind their tough-guy personas. Downie, in the last five games has picked up two goals and three assists, finding an offensive flare that has been missing since his 2009-10 days in Tampa Bay where he put up a career high 22 goals, under then head coach and current assistant coach, Rich Tocchet.
What Lies Ahead
In the Penguins recent 4-3 shootout victory over the Winnipeg Jets, the new “The Third Line” put on a display of offense, registering six of the total eight points picked up in that game. Brandon Sutter picked up a goal and two assists. Steve Downie added a goal and an assist and Nick Spaling chipped in with one assist. Sutter’s three point night was a season high so far and Downie tied his season high with two points on the evening. Although he added two goals, it was his fiery passion on the ice that garnered the attention of Penguins fans who were still leery of the signing; this was his breakout game.
It was the third line that carried play, the third line that disrupted the Jets and got under their skin, Dustin Byfuglien’s especially. Patric Hornqvist, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby, and Pascal Dupuis were all held off of the score sheet in Winnipeg. The Third Line was not. It was not the top six that carried the team to their sixth straight victory, it was the Third Line. While Crosby, Malkin and company on the top six are supposed to lead the team to victory every night and bring them a Stanley Cup at season’s end, it will not be without the contributions and the depth of the New Third Line.