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Penguins Insider: Depth might be better fit for Stanley Cup playoffs

| Monday, April 14, 2014, 9:51 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Harry Zolnierczyk tries to deflect the puck next to the Blackhawks' Mike Kostka in the first period Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

Coach Dan Bylsma ended the regular season Sunday night the way he started training camp in mid-September. He talked about wanting a third line that could score.

The Penguins never really found one during the 82-game tune-up for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The search continues as Bylsma tries to figure out the components that will make up his bottom-six forwards to start an opening-round playoff series against Columbus.

Wingers Harry Zolnierczyk and Chuck Kobasew were recalled for weekend games against Philadelphia and Ottawa. Each was informed by Penguins coaches that playoff lineup spots could be won.

For Zolnierczyk, that meant bringing speed and grit. He finished with three shots and two hits over the two games.

Kobasew, whom Bylsma said rediscovered his scoring touch with 10 goals in 12 games to wrap an AHL assignment, impressed in his one game Sunday. He attempted five shots — three were on net — and was credited with three hits and two blocks.

Neither, either or both could play against Columbus in Game 1 on Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center, Bylsma hinted.

“We've talked about what our lineup might look like given different opponents,” Bylsma said. “We know with the Columbus team we may be looking to have a more rounded third and fourth lines — that speed and maybe having the ability to score a little bit with our third and fourth lines, that maybe it's a factor.

“We'll see.”

Four players are set for bottom-six duty. Brandon Sutter will center a third line that likely will include winger Lee Stempniak. Tanner Glass, another winger, could join them. If not, he will play with forward Craig Adams on the fourth line.

That leaves two spots open, and more players than Kobasew and Zolnierczyk in the mix.

Wingers Brian Gibbons and Jayson Megna appeared in more than 35 games each and contributed five goals apiece. Both bring speed, which could serve the Penguins well facing a Blue Jackets squad with a similar system that calls for quick puck movement.

Center Joe Vitale, who also can play on the wing, said he expects to be available after missing the final 13 regular-season games because of an abdominal injury. Vitale is not a scorer — one goal in 53 games — but he is the Penguins' second best center on faceoffs, and success in that category should improve the possession battle they mostly lost in the second half.

Also, Bylsma could use defenseman Deryk Engelland on the fourth line. Engelland scored five of his six goals while playing up front. Engelland is a hard-edged player who can grind — elements that could complement well with Adams, especially on the cycle.

Ideal depth among bottom-six forwards is less about players' reputations than their abilities to handle specific roles.

Last postseason, the Penguins were so deep at forward that Jarome Iginla could only crack the top six by playing opposite his natural right wing, and winger Tyler Kennedy — a former 20-goal scorer — spent the opening four playoff games as a healthy scratch. When he did play, it was on a fourth line better suited for a checker.

The Penguins made the Eastern Conference final last postseason and were swept by Boston, and their bottom-six forwards combined for eight goals in 15 games. That squad seemingly was deep, but players were miscast in their roles.

If healthy, that should not be a problem for these Penguins.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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