Pittsburgh Penguins’ Third Line Is Their Best in Years

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While the Pittsburgh Penguins’ superstars have been running rampant thus far this season, it is the team’s scoring depth that could truly be the difference-maker in 2014-15.

The Pens’ third line specifically, comprised of Brandon Sutter, Steve Downie, and Nick Spaling, has been fantastic as of late and is beginning to emerge as the team’s best third line since their championship days five years ago.

Pittsburgh has been guilty in recent years of relying too heavily on their stars and their first two lines, not only in terms of their style of play but also in the structure and functioning of the team as a whole.

Sutter’s time in Pittsburgh serves as a perfect example of this. Though the young centre has been solid since the trade that brought him over from Carolina, he has been seen as simply the ‘other’ centre, as the Pens’ previous coaching regime funneled plays up and down through Sutter’s third line in order to make things work for the top two trios.

This season, however, we’ve seen a change in the way things work in Pittsburgh. New head coach Mike Johnston stressed early in the preseason the importance of giving each centre at least one player to stick by and develop chemistry with. While Sutter was supposed to have Beau Bennett alongside him for that purpose, this was not to be as the talented winger went down with an injury before the season began. Thus Sutter was paired with Downie, and eventually, following Evgeni Malkin‘s return to the centre position, they were joined by Spaling.

Together the three have proved a formidable trio to handle, as they’ve played a responsible, yet offensively dangerous brand of hockey.

Brandon Sutter has led the way, posting 4 goals and 8 points through 12 games. While he only managed 13 goals and 26 points last season as his linemates seemed to change seemingly every game, the stability and chemistry brought on by Johnston’s lineup philosophy has Sutter poised to double those numbers this season.

He certainly has the skill. Penguins fans saw what Sutter is capable of when he powered Pittsburgh to a series win over Columbus during last year’s playoffs. Sutter’s 21-goal, 40-point effort in 2009-10 (totals he amassed despite missing 10 games) serves as further evidence that he has what it takes to remain a key part of the Pens’ offense this time around.

Steve Downie is similarly looking great thus far. In his first season with the team, the hard-nosed winger has put up 7 points in 12 games thus far, including a beauty last night in Winnipeg. He’s already one goal shy of matching his highest total in the past three years. Downie’s best season came in 2009-10, the last time he played under then-Tampa Bay Lightning coach (and current Penguins assistant coach) Rick Tocchet, wherein he potted 22 goals and 46 points.

Downie’s reunion with Tocchet certainly seems to be paying off so far, and he could be ready to make his return to the 20-goal club.

The third line’s newest addition, Nick Spaling, has been a nice surprise for the Pens thus far as well. After taking a big step last season that saw him net 13 goals and 32 points, Spaling will look to build on his career year and seems set to match those numbers, at the very least, in 2014-15.

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  • The last time Pittsburgh boasted a strong 1-2-3 punch was in their championship season of 2008-09, wherein Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy, and Matt Cooke comprised the “best third line in hockey”, leading to match-up nightmares for opposing teams.

    Staal, Kennedy, and Cooke posted numbers very similar to the ones Sutter, Downie, and Cooke seem to be in line for, as Staal finished with 22 goals and 29 points, Kennedy finished with 15 goals and 35 points, and Cooke tallied 13 goals and 31 points.

    The newest rendition of the third trio seems likely to match these totals at the very least and in fact seems poised to finish well above them.

    While the numbers so far have been good, it’s been the style of play and the timeliness of said play that has the new third line poised for greatness. Just as the Kennedy-Staal-Cooke trio did their part and came through when the stars were held in check, the Pens’ new third line has been able to pick up the slack when the first two lines take rare nights off from filling up the scoresheet.

    The past two games, against the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets, have served as the most clear evidence for this as Sutter, Downie and Spaling have combined for 4 goals and 9 points over the two-game stretch, while the first two lines posted zero goals at even strength.

    After years of placing too much of the burden on the Pens’ stars’ shoulders, Pittsburgh finally seems to have discovered some legitimate secondary scoring. With Beau Bennett set to return soon, resulting in either he or Blake Comeau joining the bottom six, the trend seems destined to continue, and the Pens’ depth looks poised to carry them far once the postseason rolls around.