It’s sometimes been said that the Pittsburgh Penguins boast the best third line in hockey. Nowadays, however, Pittsburgh can almost certainly lay claim to the best third-liner in the game.
When Sidney Crosby finally returned from concussion symptoms last Thursday against the New York Rangers, the Penguins were rolling with a nine-game win streak and two hot lines in Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal and Steve Sullivan-Jordan Staal-Pascal Dupuis.
Rather than tinker with what wasn’t broken, head coach Dan Bylsma slotted the former Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner between Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, in the third-line spot normally occupied by Staal. And, four games into Crosby’s comeback, things are going pretty well – not only for the best third-liner in hockey, but for his linemates.
Crosby has yet to connect on a goal, but he’s racked up nine assists in his four games so far, and Cooke and Kennedy have been finishers. Cooke had back-to-back, two-goal games in important divisional matchups against the Rangers and New Jersey Devils, while Kennedy notched two in Tuesday’s 8-4 rout of the Winnipeg Jets.
“Just trying to keep up,” Cooke said. “He’s dynamic, he opens the ice up, and he’s made TK and I that much better. It’s a lot of fun.”
“They work really hard,” Crosby said. “They go to those tough areas. TK shoots the puck; Cookie goes to the net hard. I don’t think there were any real surprises or secrets there. I think we’ve generated some good chances and just want to keep building off of that.”
With 10 games remaining in the regular season, Cooke’s recent offensive outburst lifted him to a career-high 16 goals on the year. But he’s not altering his game much, despite playing alongside a world-class talent like Crosby.
“Obviously, you have to think a little more offensively as to what he’s going to think or how he’s going to play but, for the most part, I want to be straight ahead,” Cooke said. “I want to play somewhat of a simple game and create some space out there for the line and myself.”
Cooke has had a resurgent year, not only offensively but in his approach to playing clean while still retaining a physical edge. His transformation has been so successful, in fact, that the Pittsburgh chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association recently nominated him for the Masterton Trophy for exemplifying perseverance, dedication and sportsmanship.
If Kennedy can continue to find some offensive punch on Crosby’s wing, however, it would be a much-needed boost for a player who’s had a disappointing season in that regard, scoring only eight goals in 50 games since the Penguins resigned him to a two-year, $4 million contract last summer.
“I’m not committing to any line for any length or period of time,” Bylsma said. “Kennedy has gotten quite a bit of chances, and it was great to see him put that first shot in [versus Winnipeg], then get another one. He buried those chances and has gotten open. Sid’s been pretty spectacular at finding the open guy; Kennedy has to keep burying them.”
Crosby would also like to bury a few, but he’s not giving it too much thought.
“I can’t really change anything,” he said. “I’m not going to go to different spots. I think you have to trust your instincts when it comes to scoring goals and, in my case, a lot of it is timing and reacting, being in the right spot at the right time. I think I’ve been in those spots at different points and the puck’s either bounced over my stick or I haven’t put it in or, for whatever reason, it hasn’t gone in.
“I still feel like I’m creating things out there and I think, as a line, we are. I think all the lines have done a good job of keeping momentum and that’s really our job, to create things out there. Whether it’s setting up guys or putting it in myself, we’ve got to contribute in some way. Obviously, I love to score, so I want to take advantage of the opportunities I get. That being said, there’s not a lot I would change at this point.”
The Penguins aren’t especially concerned, either, that their 24-year-old captain – who’s just two years removed from owning a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy for the league goal-scoring lead – won’t be finding the net soon. And they know Crosby’s competitive nature well enough to know that, in the end, the winning is the only thing that matters.
“I think if you asked him if he’d rather have four assists or one goal, he’d say four assists,” Cooke said.