It is now official.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have not one mystical, magical two-headed monster, but TWO of them.
It’s no secret that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have become the two-headed monster, but in the final, intense run to the playoffs, another two-headed monster reared up in the form of Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy. Don’t blink because on the lead PK, the monster transforms to the tandem of Staal and Matt Cooke who have been unleashed, and all three players could conceivably be the “X” Factor for a successful playoff conclusion, the kind that eluded the Pens last year.
Time and again, in games when the team struggled during the birth of its new identity, the third line, most consistently comprised of Staal, Kennedy, and Cooke, has emerged to hit hard, start cycles in the offensive end, wear down opponents, and put some points on the board.
Case in point: in their last game against the New York Islanders, if a tertiary assist existed, it would have gone to the Staal line on the Bill Guerin goal at 11:08 in the third period. Staal and company mercilessly ground down the Islanders’ defensemen with crisp, swift passes around the net, cycling on both circles, and wheeling the puck out to the blue-liners only to start all over again…and again…and again for what had to be one of the longest sustained cycles of the season.
By the time the Crosby line got on the ice, a too-short clear of the puck kept the Isle’s defensemen stranded on the ice. They put up a fight, but it was clear that their legs had turned to lead, and Guerin made them pay for it.
That’s the value of the Penguins’ third line, and under Dan Bylsma, they have methodically honed their craft. With each successive game they play in the Bylsma era, their cycles start sooner, last longer, and really free up the ice for their teammates. They are hitting their stride as a unit at the right time, and truth be told, the third line is the most in-sync unit.
The statistics also show the growth of these three players both individually and as a collective. An analysis of the last 24 games played under Michel Therrien and the 24 games played prior to their last against the Montreal Canadiens under Dan Bylsma shakes out as follows:
- Jordan Staal—Under Therrien: 4 G, 6 A (10 points), 40 shots on net with a 10% shot percentage. Under Bylsma: 7 G, 10 A (17 points), 61 shots on net with an 11.4% shot percentage.
- Matt Cooke—Under Therrien: 4 G, 2 A (6 points), 28 shots on net with a 14.3% shot percentage. Under Bylsma: 5 G, 6 A (11 points), 35 shots on net with a 14.3% shot percentage.
- Tyler Kennedy—Under Therrien: 4 G, 5A (9 points), 65 shots on net with a 6.2% shot percentage. Under Bylsma: 6 G, 9 A (15 points), 57 shots on net with a 10.5% shot percentage.
- Collectively—Under Therrien: 12 G, 13 A (25 points), 133 shots on net with a 9% shot percentage. Under Bylsma: 18 G, 35 A (43 points), 153 shots on net with an 18% shot percentage.
Staal’s shot production has increased considerably (+21), Cooke moderately so (+7), and while Kennedy’s shots on net have decreased (-8), his shot selection has evolved to create better chances to score, increasing his percentage by 4.3%. Under Bylsma, they have 6 more goals, 22 more assists, 20 more shots on net, and they’ve impressively doubled their shot percentage from 9% to 18%.
Watching them individually as well as collectively, these three skate with more confidence and authority. They punish opponents on the boards as they fight for possession of the puck, and each knows innately exactly where the other two are at all times.
Tyler Kennedy’s spark plug style makes him hard to track as one moment he’s on one side of the net, and the next, he’s in the opposite corner, breaching the distant to the puck before the first defenseman arrives, and gaining possession. He has a keen sense of where he is on the ice at all times in relation to Staal and Cooke even when his back is turned, showing very quick visual perception.
Matt Cooke adds the gritty, instigatory element to the line and to the team by extension, and he has really made a study of his role. The turning point was against the Tampa Bay Lightning some games back when he managed to out-best the old salty dog king tormentor and former Penguins forward, Gary Roberts. Cooke managed to get under Roberts’ skin, causing the 40-plus-year-old veteran to pull a rookie mistake and retaliate. Cooke’s brand of physical, scrappy play is to a point now where he is managing to spend less time in the penalty box, showing that he is mastering the subtler points of the art of institgation–and loving it.
Finally, big center man, Jordan Staal, is proving Ray Shero’s theory of creating a strong core from Sid through the lines to Fleury. Staal’s efforts, paired with Matt Cooke, have elevated the PK to a shade above 87%, and in 5-on-3 situations with the fantastic play of defenseman Rob Scuderi, this unit will prove both valuable and formidable in the playoffs.
Even more importantly, Staal’s confidence has sky-rocketed. He now lugs the puck from his defensive end into the offensive zone not as quick to get rid of it as in weeks past. Now, he looks not just to make a play but to generate a sustained play. Confidence is allowing him to “see” options as if he has all the time in the world within a span of mere seconds, and his linemates are operating on the same frequency.
Staal has developed some signature moves that reveal his strength and the true extent of his reach. The most striking thing he added to his repertoire was a few games ago when Kennedy fed him a puck some distance above the left circle just inside the blue line, clearly out of his usual comfort zone of the interior hash mark on the same side. Staal ripped a slap shot that scored. What this shows is a young player who is now ready to challenge himself a little more, to try something new when the opportunity arises. It makes one wonder what his stats might have been, and more importantly where he would be now in his own development, under a full season of Dan Bylsma.
It’d be nice to find out.