Behind Kennedy, Pens roll Rangers to win 8th straight
Tyler Kennedy needed a reminder that he is “a good player.”
He offered one to the Penguins on Saturday.
A multiple-point game — his first in a span of 38 contests dating to last season — sparked the Penguins to their eighth consecutive victory, a 3-0 decision over the New York Rangers at Consol Energy Center.
Kennedy assisted on rookie left winger Beau Bennett's rocket-shot second goal 90 seconds in and drew a penalty that led to his power-play marker that sealed the victory early in the third period.
That goal, Kennedy's fourth, was only his second in 12 contests.
He scored 21 goals two years ago — partly because season-ending injuries to centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin elevated him to a top-six role but also because he routinely brought speed and tenacity in addition to a willingness to shoot.
Coach Dan Bylsma needs those elements from Kennedy if the Penguins are to make a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They have won one series since 2009 — by no coincidence, the last time they had what Bylsma calls a “third-line identity.”
Bylsma said he expressed all of this to Kennedy during a conversation 10 days ago.
“He's done a good job of being effective over the last four or five games,” Bylsma said. “Skating, being physical, playing his type of game.”
The Penguins (21-8-0, 42 points) know the game opponents will play going forward.
The Boston Bruins visit Sunday for a rematch of their loss here Tuesday, and they likely will match their top defense pairings against the Penguins' No. 1 line anchored by captain Sidney Crosby.
Bennett noted the Rangers did that Saturday, playing defensemen Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh against Crosby and wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
Crosby, the NHL scoring leader, finished without a point and registered only two shots. Kunitz, second in points as of Saturday, also failed to score and was blanked.
Dupuis scored his 14th goal, but it came while taking a shift with center Dustin Jeffrey and left winger Matt Cooke.
The Penguins' top six forwards — members of the No. 1 line; right winger James Neal; and centers Evgeni Malkin (injured) and Brandon Sutter — have combined to score 74 of the club's NHL-best 106 goals.
That is 69.8 percent.
Aside from Sutter, who anchors the third line, bottom-six forwards have accounted for 13 goals — one fewer than the Penguins' defensemen.
The top-heavy offensive production is one reason general manager Ray Shero has multiple items on his shopping list as the trade deadline approaches April 3.
The priority is an own-zone defenseman who can fill a top-four role, preferably as a partner for Kris Letang.
Also, Shero is aiming to bolster his third and fourth lines.
Success in each of those objectives should help a penalty kill that began Saturday 24th overall at 78.8 percent but one that is improving.
Opponents have failed to score a power-play goal in six of nine games, and the Penguins have been short-handed three or fewer times in seven of those contests, including the past five.
Championship clubs are deep on defense, equipped to kill penalties and able to get scoring from their role players.
Take the 2009 Penguins, for whom Kennedy scored goals in victorious Games 4 and 6 of the Cup Final.
Remembering better days — those playoffs, this one against the Rangers — should provide Kennedy with confidence.
Encouraging words from teammates will not hurt, either.
“It's nice to see he's got his groove back,” Sutter said. “Hopefully he keeps it going.”