The recent postseason history of the Pittsburgh Penguins is littered with third lines that made a championship difference.
In 2009, Matt Cooke, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy were known as the best third line in hockey. In 2016, the HBK Line featuring Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel set the hockey world on fire.
The third-line combination the Penguins are using these days — Dominik Simon, Nick Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist — is making its case to join the list.
They’ve relentlessly driven possession for the better part of a month, playing good defense and hanging onto the puck down low in the offensive zone.
All they need to do to earn a nickname and get people to start printing T-shirts with their likenesses is to start scoring some goals.
“I think we’ve been playing good,” Hornqvist said. “We’re playing both sides of the puck. We’ve created a lot of chances. We haven’t scored that many goals, though, but if we keep playing the same way, we’re going to get goals.”
The numbers paint a pretty good picture of the promise the line possesses. When they’ve been on the ice together at even strength, the Penguins have had a 53-36 advantage in shots and a 3-0 edge in goals.
The individual talents of the players on the line make those numbers possible.
One proven way for a team to retain possession is to carry the puck into the zone rather than dumping and chasing. The shifty Simon does that well.
The gritty Hornqvist, meanwhile, is one of the best players in the league at retrieving pucks in the corners and below the goal line, which is another way for a line to rack up offensive-zone time.
Finally, the lanky Bjugstad knows how to use his 6-foot-6 frame to ward off defenders and keep the puck on his stick.
“I think we all support each other pretty well and kind of play that same style of game,” Bjugstad said. “We want to go get the puck. Even with me, when I’m playing well, I’m holding onto the puck down low. That’s kind of what I’ve got to focus on. I can keep getting better at that here.
“Playing with those two, you know they’re going to be supporting you. If you’ve got two guys on you, they’re going to be open and they’re going to be in the right spot. They’re fun to play with.”
While the line passes both the stat test and the eye test, it has managed a goal in just three of the 10 games it has played together.
Needless to say, that’s the hole in the resume.
There has been a great deal of hand-wringing over the fact the Penguins have surrendered one-goal leads late in regulation in five of their past 14 games, and justifiably so. The best way to protect a one-goal lead is to turn it into a two-goal lead, of course, and the Penguins haven’t done enough of that lately.
The Penguins can’t count on second-line stalwarts Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to fix the problem like they normally would. Malkin is out on a week-to-week basis with an upper-body injury, and Kessel hasn’t scored an even-strength goal in 25 games.
It’s important, therefore, for the third line to start to turn some of its 23-8 advantage in high-danger scoring chances into tangible results on the scoreboard.
Coach Mike Sullivan is confident it will.
“I think Nick’s line has been really good for a number of games now,” Sullivan said. “They’re a real good 200-foot line. They’re conscientious defensively. They’ve shown an ability to score. They control territory. That line has been very good for us for a number of games.”