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Though small by NHL standards, Crosby line putting up big numbers

Jonathan Bombulie
| Thursday, March 16, 2017, 7:51 p.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby celebrates with Conor Sheary after Sheary's winning goal against the Sabres in the third period Sunday, March 5, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby celebrates with Conor Sheary after Sheary's winning goal against the Sabres in the third period Sunday, March 5, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins' Conor Sheary keeps the puck in the offensive zone against the Lightning on Friday, March 3, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Conor Sheary keeps the puck in the offensive zone against the Lightning on Friday, March 3, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins' Jake Guentzel sets up beside Sabres goaltender Andres Nilsson in the third period Sunday, March 5, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Jake Guentzel sets up beside Sabres goaltender Andres Nilsson in the third period Sunday, March 5, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

When winger Tom Sestito's son was born last spring, Sidney Crosby wrote a personalized message on the blade of a stick as a gift to the infant and his parents.

“I felt a foot taller with your dad in the lineup,” Crosby wrote.

Know what else makes Crosby feel taller?

Playing with his current linemates.

For perhaps the first time in his career, the 5-foot-11 Crosby is the tallest member of his line. Right wing Conor Sheary is 5-8, and left wing Jake Guentzel, though listed at 5-11, is a little shorter than his centerman.

“I didn't ever think of that. I like it,” Crosby said with a grin before slipping into a more serious discussion of his new linemates.

“The speed that they bring is great,” he continued. “They're strong on pucks. They work hard to get those tough areas, even though they're not the biggest guys. To be honest, some of the guys I've played with in the past, it doesn't always have to be the biggest guys. It's the way you play. Everyone's working to get loose pucks and create turnovers and that kind of thing. I don't think size is an issue.”

Height shouldn't be valued over performance, of course, but that's a relatively new concept for NHL coaches and general managers.

Even just a few years ago, coach Mike Sullivan might have been scoffed at for putting together a trio as diminutive as his current top line. They won't get anywhere near the net, critics might say. They'll get steamrolled in the defensive zone.

With the game trending more toward speed and skill than size and strength with each passing season, Sullivan doesn't have to justify his decision to anyone.

“We thought about it,” Sullivan said. “We obviously discussed the pros and the cons. We thought the pros certainly outweighed the cons.

“I think what allows them to be successful is that all three of them are brave, and they don't get pushed around. I think they're hard to play against because they're elusive in tight space and they play with courage, and those two things can be dangerous. Even though they might be a little bit undersized, I think their hearts are bigger than their physical stature.”

The numbers back up Sullivan's praise.

The trio was first put together on a consistent basis while the Penguins were turning a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 victory over Buffalo during a March 5 game. Guentzel and Sheary scored in the final five minutes of the comeback.

There are plenty of metrics that can measure how effective the line has been since. They've been one of the NHL's best lines at generating shot attempts this season. They've had some of the most impressive possession numbers of any trio Sullivan has tried all year long.

But keeping it as simple as possible, they've combined for seven goals, 19 points and 77 shots on goal in the past six games.

“I think we had 25 shots as a line,” Sheary said, recalling the genesis of the trio's success during the Buffalo game. “It was almost like we were creating chances every shift we were on the ice. I think that was maybe the turning point. We realized if we kept our chemistry and kept talking to each other, I think it was going to work out.”

Because all three members of the line have speed that's well above average, they obviously have created some scoring chances off the rush while playing together. They've had more success, however, on crafty give-and-go plays deep in the offensive zone.

If they stick together as a unit, that chemistry, more than their lack of size or excess of speed, just might end up being their calling card.

“I think we use our speed and try to get pucks behind their defensemen, get below the goal line and try to make some plays,” Guentzel said. “It's obviously gone well so far.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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