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Penguins call-up wingers figure out new roles

| Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, 8:36 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Red Wings' Xavier Ouellet tries to defend the Penguins' Matt Cullen in the first period Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.

Gradually, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan experimented with intriguing opportunities for the wingers from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as injuries took a toll on the team's forward corps.

Conor Sheary spent a couple games on the top line with Sidney Crosby.

Bryan Rust took shifts during three-on-three overtime in Florida.

Scott Wilson scored two of his career's first three goals during four-on-four play.

Each decision by Sullivan signaled a great deal of faith in the wingers. And the coach, no longer constrained by a lack of experienced centers with Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino back in the lineup, can explore just how much to ask of Sheary, Wilson, Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl as the Penguins enter increasingly critical games.

In his first opportunity to flank the young wingers with the Penguins' optimal selection of centers, Sullivan placed Sheary and Wilson alongside Bonino on the third line and chose Matt Cullen to anchor a defensively oriented line with Rust and Kuhnhackl.

“They're both very cerebral players,” Sullivan said of Bonino and Cullen. “They have a calming influence, I think, on younger players.”

Just three days before his hand injury, Bonino centered Rust and Kuhnhackl for the first time in Montreal.

Upon his return Saturday against Winnipeg, Bonino found a different set of former Baby Pens listed as wingers on his line.

An upper-body injury in the second period for Sheary complicated the opportunity to draw any big conclusions about the Bonino-led line.

“That kind of put a wrinkle into the flow of everything, but I thought Willie and I played well together,” Bonino said.

Wilson deflected a shot from Derrick Pouliot to score his fourth goal of the season while out on the ice with Bonino, who earned the secondary assist.

“He makes it a lot easier because he's really good defensively, and he's got some offensive upside as well,” Wilson said of Bonino. “Me and Shearsy were excited to get a chance with him.”

Wilson and Sheary each became bright spots and point producers for the Penguins while flanking Kevin Porter, the veteran among the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups, in February.

Sullivan stopped short of setting higher scoring standards for Wilson and Sheary as they skate with Bonino, who finished with 49 and 39 points the last two seasons. But he suggested there's hope for more offense from the team's bottom-six forwards.

“I think Bones has some real good offensive instincts, and when he plays with Conor Sheary and Willie, those guys can think offense, as well,” Sullivan said. “Both of those guys are quick. I think that helps Bones when he gets into offensive situations.

“We expect (Sheary and Wilson) to play the game the way that they've played since they've been here — their energy, their enthusiasm, their relentless pursuit on the puck.”

Cullen, no longer required to concentrate on offensive chances as a center for second-line wingers Carl Hagelin and Kessel, returns to the role he effectively filled during the season's first several months. In Kuhnhackl and Rust, he has kindred checking-line spirits.

“That's a line, for me, that gives me some more latitude on the bench as far as how I want to use our lines,” Sullivan said. “If I want to get Sid away from power against power, say, or get him away from a defense pair, then I can do that. If I want to get Sid away from taking defensive-zone faceoffs so that he can use his energy in other aspects of the game, it allows me to do that.”

Kuhnhackl and Porter, because of their career service time, cannot return to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at this point in the season. Sheary, Wilson and Rust — as well as Pouliot and goalie Matt Murray — might be reassigned to the Baby Pens, at least on paper, ahead of Monday's 3 p.m. trade deadline so they're eligible to rejoin the Penguins' AHL affiliate later this season, but they're more likely to spend the next month-plus in the NHL as winger pairings for the Penguins.

“We like the chemistry that they've shown in the games that they've played,” Sullivan said. “We think they have complementary skill sets, and they've played well together. That's why they've been paired together on the flanks with different centermen rather than plugged in (separately).”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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