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Penguins center Sutter is thriving despite unsettled 3rd line

| Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, 10:24 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Brandon Sutter fans on a shot in front of Islanders goaltender Kevin Poulin Friday, Nov. 22, 2013 at Consol Energy Center.

Sidney Crosby always has Chris Kunitz by his side. Evgeni Malkin, with the exception of the next four games, always has James Neal.

Brandon Sutter? He gets the whole team by his side, one game at a time.

The third-line's wingers have been a revolving door, but its center, after a slow start, appears to be hitting his stride.

Sutter's numbers aren't impressive, but his play has pleased coach Dan Bylsma.

“I think Brandon has played his best hockey in his last 15 games,” he said.

The Penguins especially are pleased with Sutter's defensive work. While he has scored only five goals in 32 games, Sutter isn't required to light up the scoreboard. Sutter was acquired largely because of his defensive work.

“He knows he has to be good defensively,” Crosby said. “And you can see how good he's been lately. He's playing really good hockey for us.”

Much like Sutter, the Penguins' penalty-killing unit started slowly.

Lately, though, both are on the rise.

Sutter has scored all five of his goals in his past 20 games — a 21-goal pace, which projects to about what the Penguins expect — and the team's penalty killing, which ranked in the middle of the NHL in October, finds itself ranked second with an 86.8 percent conversion rate.

Bylsma noted that Sutter's faceoff work — he wins 52 percent of his draws — and attention to detail in the defensive zone have been paramount to the team's recent success.

“I think he's playing significantly better than he did last year,” Bylsma said.

But about that revolving door on his line?

“It's not the worst thing in the world,” said Sutter, one of the most laid-back Penguins. “Playing defensively, everyone has the same role, so that doesn't really change anything. It's just hard to develop any chemistry offensively when you're always with different players.”

Sutter didn't score a goal in his first 12 games and wasn't noticeable in the offensive zone for a time after the first of two injuries to Beau Bennett, who was projected to play with Sutter. However, with Chris Conner and Andrew Ebbett — both started the season playing for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton — Sutter began to play his best hockey.

“That third line has been at its best in the last seven games,” Bylsma said. “It's been a factor.”

The Penguins' wingers have been ravaged by injuries and suspensions, with Neal, Bennett, Ebbett, Tanner Glass and Chuck Kobasew missing long stretches.

Crosby and Malkin are being relied upon more than ever because of this. Sutter is doing his part, too.

“I would like to put up better numbers, but I'm happy with how I'm playing,” Sutter said. “I feel strong.”

The Penguins' more-decorated centers agree.

“He's had a lot of different guys on his wing, but he has adjusted,” Crosby said. “It's just the way he is. He's a good hockey player.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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