PITTSBURGH — Penguins GM Ray Shero covets roster competition. He wants his players to have to fight for a spot in the lineup.
He added Tomas Vokoun in the offseason to challenge a comfortable Marc-Andre Fleury in goal. He acquired Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Jussi Jokinen, and Douglas Murray at the trade deadline without sacrificing a single player from the active roster.
The moves were supposed to make the Penguins deep, loaded, perhaps even unbeatable.
But after four games in their first round series with the New York Islanders, the Penguins had been beaten. Twice in fact. Head coach Dan Bylsma needed a change.
Into the lineup came Tyler Kennedy, Joe Vitale, Simon Despres, and Vokoun. Up to the press box went Tanner Glass, Jussi Jokinen, Mark Eaton, and Fleury.
“We were hoping to get a spark,” Bylsma said. “Adding those guys, adding speed to our lineup, some grit. We got it right off the hop with Joey V and Tyler Kennedy.”
On their first shift, Kennedy stole a puck on a determined backcheck and Vitale drew a penalty.
Spark. Speed. Grit.
Check. Check. Check.
The Penguins weren’t able to cash in on the powerplay and the game stayed tied at zero until midway through the second period.
Kennedy snuck behind the defense on a line change and Kris Letang picked his head up in time to notice. He fired a laser pass onto Kennedy’s stick that stuck like glue and sprung him in alone on Evgeni Nabokov:
“I think [Pascal Dupuis] was coming off late and I kind of hung behind the defense because I saw they turned the puck over,” Kennedy said. “Tanger threaded the needle and gave me a great pass.”
If you listen closely, you can hear Kennedy yelling on the play, praying and hoping that Letang notices him.
Trying to get noticed is nothing new for Tyler Kennedy the past two weeks. The goal gave him 10 points over his last 12 playoff games, but you’d have to go back to 2012 to find his last playoff action. Kennedy, despite his $2 million contract, was a healthy scratch for the first four games of the Islanders series.
It hasn’t been easy for the 26-year-old winger with six NHL seasons and 68 playoffs games on his resume.
“Obviously it sucks to sit out, you know? You want to stay positive and stuff, but it’s the coaches decision.”
Kennedy certainly wasn’t thrilled with Bylsma’s decision to scratch him for the first four games, but no coach or GM would want a player who’s downright happy to be out of the lineup every night.
“If you’ve watched Tyler in practice,” Bylsma said, “he’s been shooting the puck a million miles an hour. When he got the opportunity there on a great pass from Kris Letang, I’ve seen him scoring that goal a couple of times lately in practice. But it wasn’t just him scoring that goal, it was his energy and how he played that really added a lot to our lineup. He added that speed and grit that we hoped to get and was a big part of the win tonight.”
When Kennedy talked to the coaching staff and found out he’d be in the lineup for Game 5, he said they told him to keep his game simple, finish his checks, and channel his energy in the right way. While playing through early-season struggles, Kennedy often resorted to unnecessary stick work and senseless penalties that dropped him from Evgeni Malkin’s wing to the press box over a matter of months.
He found the right mindset on Thursday night though and was arguably the Penguins’ most effective player.
“I was a little more rested than other guys and I tried to come in and play my best and create some energy for the guys,” Kennedy said.
He also knew it wouldn’t help to pout and create a distraction during his time out of the lineup.
“I want to win. I’m a positive guy. Whatever they ask of me I’m going to try to do. Obviously it sucks [being scratched], but I’m a team player and I want to buy in and I got to stay positive if I’m sitting out.”
In some ways, Kennedy’s style of play is ideal for a fourth line energy role. He’s quick and relentless on the forecheck, and has a quick release on a hard shot that catches goalies off balance. He has the tendency to overshoot at times — which can be problematic when paired with a patient magician like Malkin — but it actually leads to positive results on a checking line.
The goal of checking line is to possess the puck in the offensive zone, forecheck hard, and burn time off the clock. The momentum of a playoff game starts to shift after 45 seconds of relentless cycling on home ice.
Kennedy’s overanxious shot serves a positive purpose on the fourth line. In a best case scenario, he scores. In a worst case scenario, he gets a whistle in the offensive zone and allows the Penguins to deploy their scoring lines.
For some players like Kennedy — who isn’t far removed from a 21 goal season — the simplified role would be frustrating. But Kennedy just wants to contribute, and he couldn’t regain lost confidence from the press box as a healthy scratch.
“I don’t know if I was struggling or whatever, but whenever you score a goal it helps your confidence. I’m just trying to help the team. If that’s scoring a goal, or making a hit, whatever.”
Kennedy was even quick to deflect praise to the rest of his teammates after the Penguins 4-0 win in Game 5.
“Obviously I scored but I thought other guys brought a ton of momentum tonight,” he said. “Our defense was great. It’s not just one or two guys. It was a whole team effort.”
Across the locker room, Tomas Vokoun stood with his hands on his hips, reflecting on his 31-save shutout. He hadn’t played since April 22, but stepped in and won a critical game for the Penguins at a time when they needed it most.
“I’m here to help the team. I’ve said that all year long. Whether I play one minute or every minute, whatever the coaches decide, that’s fine by me.”
“There’s a lot of guys in here like that. We don’t care about ice time or who scores the goals. We just care if we win at the end. That’s really what matters.”