Penguins coach Mike Sullivan opts for physicality on 4th line
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — When Zach Aston-Reese was cleared to return from a lower-body injury before the start of a first-round series with the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had to decide what kind of identity he wanted his fourth line to take.
He opted for physicality.
For Game 1 on Wednesday night, he sat down Teddy Blueger, a mobile, smart rookie with six goals and 10 points in 28 NHL games this season.
He put Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson on either side of Matt Cullen instead, hoping to create a fourth-line combination with a punishing, straight-ahead style.
There were no indications at Friday’s morning skate that Sullivan plans to change up the trio for Game 2.
“Energy, physical play, momentum, reliable, trustworthy — that’s what those guys bring,” Sullivan said.
In a sense, playing Aston-Reese and Wilson allows the Penguins to directly counteract what the Islanders bring with their vaunted fourth line.
Called the best fourth line in hockey by the team’s fans, Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck have been a mainstay in the Islanders lineup for the better part of the last six years.
This season, Martin finished fifth in the league with 275 hits. Clutterbuck was 21st with 209.
In Game 1, their long, physical stay in the offensive zone on the first shift of the first period set a tone for the game.
“It’s hard to replicate,” Aston-Reese said. “I think Martin’s led the league in hits almost every year for a while now. You’re never going to replicate what they do, but you can come pretty close to it. I think any time you’re hitting or playing a physical game, it’s easier to get into it emotionally. It’s easier to invest in it.”
Aston-Reese said the Penguins’ fourth line must contribute to a team-wide commitment to physicality.
“That’s something we talked about,” Aston-Reese said. “Up and down their lineup, they’re a team that checks. They’re a team that’s physical from their first line to their fourth line. We talked about how we need to have that in our lineup. First line to fourth line, every guy needs to finish a hit. Doesn’t need to be highlight, bone-shattering. Just finish a guy.”
He also said the trio intends to use a grinding cycle game to create offensive chances. He lamented a missed opportunity at the left post that he had in Game 1.
“We’ve got to have the mindset that if we get those one or two Grade As that they’re going to start going in,” Aston-Reese said.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .