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Cullen's line doing things 'right way' for Penguins

| Wednesday, April 19, 2017, 7:30 p.m.

A posterboard sat at the front end of the Penguins dressing room Wednesday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, but several of the players with stalls closest to it, Matt Cullen and Carter Rowney among them, least needed explanations on the material's message.

At different points since the start of the first-round series with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the poster, which defines the four tenets of coach Mike Sullivan's “right way” to play, stuck to the dressing room's whiteboard display for all to observe. Sometimes handwritten notes on the dry-erase board broke the four elements — puck management, compete level, “chipping bodies” and discipline with the details — into even finer points.

As the Penguins, up 3-1 in the series, transitioned from Tuesday's 5-4 road loss in Game 4 to preparing for Thursday's Game 5 at PPG Paints Arena, Sullivan made certain all of his skaters took a moment to mind where things went right and wrong. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the poster children of the Penguins organization, but they're just as obligated to abide by the “Right Way” poster's rules as the team's scrappy fourth-liners.

“That's simply a reminder for our group every time we enter the locker room that this is the standard that we're going to hold ourselves accountable to,” Sullivan said.

“I think the way our team is wired, when you look at our core players, our best players … they tend to think offense and playmaking first, which is what makes them as good as they are. But sometimes in the game, the play is not there to be made.

“We don't want to take the stick out of their hands because that's what we think separates them from others. But we have to be more vigilant on when we make those decisions, and we have to have a calculated risk in mind.”

When it comes to risk-reward calculation, arguably none of the Penguins forward trios have done it better than Cullen, Rowney and Tom Kuhnhackl. Though used sparingly and as a checking line, Cullen and company frequently tilted the ice in the Penguins' favor. In 32-plus minutes of five-on-five action with Cullen, Rowney and Kuhnhackl together, the Penguins were even in goals (1-1) and held edges in shot attempts (30-26), shots on goal (22-16) and scoring chances (6-2) as defined by Corsica Hockey.

Only Evgeni Malkin's line with Bryan Rust and Phil Kessel, a trio that logged 54 minutes of five-on-five time together through Game 4, helped the Penguins score more goals (four) than they allowed (one). But the Malkin-led trio, with 21 more minutes of ice time together, otherwise performed similarly to Cullen's line, as the star-laden line held a 28-19 edge in shots on goal and 8-6 edge in scoring chances.

Crosby's line trailed in five-on-five shot attempts (72-73), shots (35-46) and goals (3-6) but generated more scoring chances than it allowed (17-16).

Nick Bonino's line, serving a defense-first role more comparable to Cullen's trio, sat on the wrong side in five-on-five goal differential (0-1) as well as shot attempts (29-41) and shots on goal (15-17).

“I think with the ice time that we've been given, we've been able to go out there and give energy to the team,” Rowney said. “We're trying to chip bodies if we can, still trying to be very disciplined in our game, not give them anything easy. We try to force them to play a 200-foot game.”

Quizzed about the “Right Way” poster, Rowney found himself stumped after naming two of the four concepts.

Kuhnhackl rattled off three with confidence. He's under no illusion that a devotion to the guidelines will earn him and his linemates more opportunities, though.

“We know if the game is going our team's way or Geno or Sid's line is just playing unbelievable, you've got to get them out there,” Kuhnhackl said. “If they're hot, you've got to get them on the ice as much as possible. And if we get a chance, we want to keep it as simple as possible and make sure we work their D-men in their end. The more time you spend in their end, the more tired they get, and maybe we get a line change and get a fresh line out. That's what we're trying to do.”

That humility and role adherence resonates with Sullivan, who has spoken at length about the importance of “thankless jobs” — the fourth line's specialties — in winning high-stakes games.

“There's a lot of aspects of that line that we think help our team become harder to play against,” Sullivan said. “Part of playing the game the right way is becoming difficult to play against, and I think that line helps us in that regard.”

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

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Carter Rowney fights past the Blue Jackets' Gabriel Carlsson for the puck in the third period Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at Nationwide Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Carter Rowney and Matt Cullen celebrate with Tom Kuhnhackl after Kuhnackl's goal against the Blue Jackets in the third period Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at Nationwide Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Tom Kuhnhackl beats Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in the third period Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at Nationwide Arena.
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