Pens' 4th-liners fighting to stay in lineup
Center Joe Vitale stands a good chance of participating in the Stanley Cup playoffs despite the Penguins recently acquiring two forwards.
He can thank his wife.
Vitale wanted to improve his faceoff ability last summer, and there was wisdom in the decision. Coach Dan Bylsma is looking for fourth-line players who excel in specific areas.
With the additions of Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla — the Penguins expected him to be in town Saturday, although his status remained unclear for the 1 p.m. game against the Islanders — the Penguins' top nine forwards essentially are set. It's a group that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke.
If the Penguins enter the playoffs healthy, only three spots will remain for forwards Vitale, Craig Adams, Tanner Glass, Tyler Kennedy and Dustin Jeffrey.
That means potentially difficult decisions for Bylsma.
Adams, a rugged playoff veteran who perhaps is the team's best penalty killer, almost certainly will be in the lineup.
Bylsma has speculated he could deploy seven defensemen in the playoffs, which would leave one spot available for Kennedy, Glass, Vitale and Jeffrey.
“That fourth line might be comprised of an Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby or Brandon Sutter on a double shift,” said Bylsma, implying an 11-forward look.
Bylsma doesn't take his fourth line lightly.
“You feel it in the shortened season, and the playoffs are a lot like that,” he said. “You need an effective fourth line. We can't just be a three-line team.”
Still, Penguins players said they are delighted by the arrivals of Iginla and Morrow.
The lineup, they insist, will take care of itself. They know players with specific skill sets have a better shot at landing a spot on the fourth line.
Vitale understands that.
“My wife was five months pregnant,” he said. “It was in St. Louis, probably 120 degrees. I dragged her outside to help me on draws. She just dropped puck after puck, and I worked. She actually wasn't a very good dropper, and that helped. I was getting good at winning bad draws, so now I can win good or bad draws.”
Vitale has won 63 percent of his draws this season, a higher percentage than Sidney Crosby (56 percent), who takes most of the team's critical faceoffs. Such a specialty could prompt Bylsma to keep Vitale in the lineup when the postseason arrives as situational skills are needed during seven-game series.
“That will be a factor definitely for how that line is put together,” Bylsma said. “If you have a penalty kill aspect or a faceoff aspect, it's going to lend to you having a role.”
Glass hasn't generated a point this season, but his penalty killing ability gives him an opportunity to see postseason playing time.
“I don't think about (job security),” he said. “I think about winning. If we can bring in guys that can help us win, that's great. I'm confident that I'm a valuable part of this team and that I can help this team win. I open the new guys with open arms.”
Special teams become especially crucial in the postseason, and Glass embraces his role.
“It's something I take a lot of pride in,” Glass said. “If that's what gets me more ice time, that's fine.”
Kennedy and Jeffrey could struggle to find ice time simply because they don't kill penalties.
After starting the season slowly, Kennedy is playing his best hockey. He hopes that will keep him on the ice.
Truth is, of course, only so many roster spots remain.
“I think we're all motivated right now,” Kennedy said. “We have a great team. There are a lot of great players here now. If you want your ice time, you better earn it.”