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Undersized rookie Gibbons is blur on ice for Penguins

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Brian Gibbons head shot

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Thursday, April 17, 2014, 9:57 p.m.
 

Pure, elite-level straight-line speed can do a lot of things for a hockey player.

It can allow him to create turnovers and pressure anxious defensemen. It can allow him to make up for mistakes — and make for offensive opportunities.

World-class speed also can allow an otherwise undersized and moderately skilled player to catch the eyes of scouts, player-personnel types and coaches.

It even can induce the world's best player to campaign for you as a linemate.

“(High-level speed) is something that (Sidney Crosby) has always — always — wanted on his wings,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “And always wanted with the guys he's playing with.”

Crosby's wish, over the past four months largely has been granted in the name of Brian Gibbons. The 5-foot-8 Gibbons, a 26-year-old undrafted rookie, split time this season between the Penguins and AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Yet when he is on the NHL roster and active for a game, he more often than not finds himself on Crosby's right wing.

“Sid's a player that likes and needs his linemates to force the other team with their speed and with getting on defensemen,” Bylsma said Thursday, an off day for players following a 4-3 win against Columbus in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.

“(Crosby is) able to read off (speedy wingers' forechecks), and read where the puck's going to go because of that speed. You see that with Pascal (Dupuis), and you certainly see that with Brian Gibbons. It's a situation where he forces other teams with his speed, forces them with the pressure he can put on the puck. And Sid is able to read off that.”

Crosby's longtime right winger, Dupuis, suffered a season-ending knee injury in late December. Since then, the player most often skating on the line with Crosby and left wing Chris Kunitz — when healthy — has been Gibbons.

At first glance, that might seem curious. The best way to take advantage of Crosby's skills — ones that made him the NHL scoring champion and presumptive MVP this season — is to use him with a player who appears to be a diminutive journeyman? Especially when a highly skilled, 6-foot-2 former first-round pick is an option?

Yes — says no better authority than the highly-skilled, 6-foot-2 former first-round pick who began Wednesday's game on Crosby's line but was swapped out for Gibbons after the Crosby-Kunitz line had a pedestrian first period.

“Gibby is much faster than me, so he fits in with those guys really well,” Beau Bennett said.

No player on the team is faster than Gibbons, Byslma said, and he can create havoc on the forecheck and force opponents into mistakes.

“It's definitely one way to… get in position on (an opponent) and then use your speed to kind of get a good angle on them if they're not ready for that speed or just have a bad gap or something like that,” Gibbons said. “Even little things, before the play or if they're not ready for it, that's when (speed) comes into play.

“You've just got to use your strengths and play to your strengths. And my strength is my speed, so I try to use it.”

Staff writer Rob Rossi contributed. Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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