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Penguins stop Stars, snap 2-game skid

| Tuesday, March 18, 2014, 9:48 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Brandon Sutter beats Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen for a third-period goal Tuesday, March 18, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Brandon Sutter scored a goal Tuesday.

It came on a third-period penalty kill, and probably at a great time for him personally.

The Penguins would have defeated the Dallas Stars without Sutter's 11th marker, but his third goal in 31 games proved to be an unquestioned personal high point of the evening in a 5-1 victory.

That's because Sutter played only 17 shifts — three fewer than his season average — and centered a fourth line.

The Stanley Cup playoffs open within a month, and the Penguins are without certainty at the position that proved pivotal on their deepest postseason runs of the Sidney Crosby Era.

Who is the third-line center?On Tuesday night, it was Marcel Goc, acquired by general manager Ray Shero at the trade deadline.

Sutter, the player Shero mandated be part of the package Carolina sent his way for former third-line center Jordan Staal two years ago, was in this role against Dallas:

“We have four lines,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “(Tuesday night) was a good example of his line and Goc's line being used in different situations.”

Bylsma cited right-dot faceoffs and top-four penalty-killing forward as Sutter's responsibilities against Dallas.

Sutter worked a line with wingers Brian Gibbons and Craig Adams. Goc, who skated 22 shifts and took 16 faceoffs to Sutter's eight, worked with wingers Tanner Glass and Joe Vitale.

Glass said he “didn't know if (the Penguins) have a fourth line.”

“We have four lines we're confident in,” Glass said. “Call it third or fourth. We want to have good shifts every time out no matter who is on the lines.”

Sutter has not had the easiest second season with the Penguins. He has played with 18 different wingers, was part of trade talks with Vancouver for Ryan Kesler, and now deals with the perception of a demotion.

“I think our lines have been different every night,” Sutter said. “The bottom six or eight guys have been all over the place. We're not sure who we're going to play with going forward.

“It's difficult. You really don't have much chemistry in the offensive zone. Defensively, we all have similar mindsets. There's more of a system to it. Offensively, it's more about creativity. It's hard to find that when you're not always playing with the same person.”

Captain Sidney Crosby has mostly played with Chris Kunitz as his left winger for the past five seasons, but Kunitz had missed the previous two games with a lower-body injury.

His comeback coincided with Crosby snapping a drought — at least, by the standard of the NHL scoring leader — of two games without a point.

Crosby scored twice, his 32nd and 33rd goals, and assisted on Kunitz's 32nd marker to spark the Penguins (45-19-4, 94 points) to within a magic number of 14 points to clinch their second consecutive and seventh overall division title.

Crosby, one of Sutter's closest friends on the Penguins, said “it was good to see him put one in.”

“He does so many things — tough minutes on the penalty kill, blocks a lot of shots. He creates a lot, honestly,” Crosby said.

Sutter is best known for his defense. He ranks among the NHL's top-10 centers in the advanced metric of goals-against per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time.

He also averages the second-most ice time among forwards on the Penguins' league-best penalty kill.

He will play a role for the Penguins during their playoff run, but perhaps not the third-line role he covets.

“We've been switching all over the place,” Sutter said. “It's kind of interesting how it works, but that's where I want to be. I want that responsibility. Hopefully I'll have it moving forward.”

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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