The verb that came to mind watching last night’s 4-2 Pittsburgh win was “overwhelms.” You can hold off the Penguins for a while, you can even shut down a scorer or an entire line for games at a time, but they’ve got so much talent, they’re so deep with scorers up and down their bench and offer barely a breather, that when the Pens are on, eventually they’re going to overwhelm you.
The Lightning were washed over last night, keeping things scoreless until the closing ticks of the second, but eventually succumbing to, as the Caps and Rangers did before them, the Penguins’ relatively recently minted third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. Or, for you wrestling fans out there, the HBK line.
“They’ve given us a lot of momentum,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “They’ve produced a lot for us. Again tonight, they were great for us. They’ve been really consistent.”
Kessel’s the scorer, obviously, though he’s a great skater and Mike Sullivan will tell anyone who’ll listen that he’s a better two-way player than he gets credit for. Bonino’s the anchor, the facilitator, the line’s “defensive conscience.” Hagelin’s fast as hell, with playoff experience and a dangerous shot of his own.
None of these guys were on the roster last year, and this line might be the single biggest reason for the Penguins’ resurgence (and for why Jim Rutherford is up for GM of the Year). Crosby and Malkin have always been Crosby and Malkin, but opponents have long been able to commit to limiting their damage; no team makes it far in the playoffs if it can’t stand up to two lines. A third line this complete is an entirely different story.
Bonino was acquired in the Brandon Sutter trade with Vancouver last summer, and Kessel was obtained from the Leafs’ fire sale, though he wasn’t cheap. Hagelin came over from the Ducks in January in exchange for David Perron, and all three deals are looking pretty good right now: Kessel leads the Penguins in points this postseason, and both of his linemates are in the team’s top four alongside Crosby.
The line was almost an accident—when Malkin went down with an injury in March, Bonino was slotted in to center Hagelin and Kessel, and they meshed almost instantly: In 29 games together, Kessel has 30 points, Bonino 28, and Hagelin 24.
All found the scoresheet in one way or another last night. With time running down in the second period, Kessel stripped the puck from Jonathan Drouin (a sharp defensive play that Sullivan was eager to highlight) and outraced Victor Hedman down the boards to take a close-range shot. Hagelin, who had wisely checked his own sprint, was in perfect position to bury the rebound.
The HBK line made it 2-0 five minutes into the third, when Bonino gave Kessel a lovely feed from behind the net without even looking up—I’m not entirely sure how he knew he was there, but it’s the sort of thing that happens more on a line that’s clicking.
The Pens closed things out with goals from Crosby and Chris Kunitz, and shit, if Pittsburgh’s top line is starting to get it together too, the Lightning may be in big trouble.
But it’s the third line that came in for praise from all sides.
“Phil obviously has a great shot. (Bonino) is a real good playmaker, and (Hagelin) brings so much to that — to the other two guys. They seem to complement each other very well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.
“Phil Kessel probably doesn’t get near the respect he deserves. He’s scored a ton of goals in this league,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Bonino’s one of those underrated players that ... always has name stars ahead of him, but he’s a heck of a player. Hagelin, he’s has won everywhere he’s gone, all the teams he’s played on.”
Matt Murray was solid, and the Penguins are rolling—with the possible exception of Evgeni Malkin, who’s seen his linemates shuffled, but who did record his first point in seven games last night. But it’s remarkably easy to have patience with a quiet second line when your third can skate with anyone in the league.