Penguins fourth line proving it can play old-school and modern hockey
In the modern NHL, players who skate on the fourth line are walking a fine line.
In decades past, it was considered perfectly acceptable, even among teams with championship aspirations, to dress a fourth line that consisted of three lumbering oafs.
Their gameday goals were modest: play a few minutes, throw a few hits, drop the mitts when appropriate, try hard not to get scored on, make sure there is ice in the postgame beer cooler.
Times have changed, of course. The pendulum hasn't swung so far that teams expect their fourth lines to light up the scoreboard these days, but they have to be effective on the forecheck and in the possession game.
And that's the line Tom Kuhnhackl, Riley Sheahan and Ryan Reaves have been walking for the Penguins the past few weeks.
They share some characteristics with their fourth-line ancestors. They average 6-foot-2, 212 pounds. Reaves leads the team with 135 hits and six fighting majors. Kuhnhackl is second among the team's forwards with 95 hits and 35 blocked shots.
“We're three big bodies,” Kuhnhackl said. “I'm sure all three of us would like to get our licks in, our hits in.”
But they also have shown aptitude for playing the modern, up-tempo game. When they have been on the ice together this month, the Penguins have outscored opponents 3-2 and split the shot attempts pretty much 50-50.
“We think they're a good line,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think Riley brings a good dimension to it. He's a good, solid, two-way center-ice man. He's a good playmaker. He has good size. They can lean on our opponents defensively. They're a great momentum line for us when they get in on the forecheck and they hang onto pucks.”
The line was broken up Thursday night in Los Angeles. Jake Guentzel was moved back from center to the wing, where the Penguins would prefer he play, and Sheahan was bumped up to the middle of the third line. Jean-Sebastien Dea centered Kuhnhackl and Reaves.
In the long run, the Penguins probably would be served best by acquiring a third-line center via trade and reuniting the trio.
After all, a capable fourth line has been one of the team's strengths over the past two championship seasons.
Last season, for instance, Kuhnhackl, Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr outscored opponents 5-2 at even strength in about 132 minutes together.
“Having Cully on that line, he wasn't just responsible defensively. If you got a scoring chance, a breakaway or a two-on-one or whatever, he made that play,” Kuhnhackl said. “He had the offensive instincts to make the pass or score the goal. I think that's what made him such a successful fourth-line player for us.”
Reaves also has experience playing on a high-end fourth line. Last year in St. Louis, he joined Kyle Brodziak and Scottie Upshall on a line that led Blues trios in even-strength ice time for the season. The team outscored opponents 17-16 when they were on the ice together.
“We were going to put it one of me or Uppy's corner and go get a hit, bang a body, and the other guys come get the puck,” Reaves said. “Cycle it down low and just kind of stay on the grind. We understood that was our identity. We never took that for granted, and we stuck with it.”
If Kuhnhackl, Sheahan and Reaves can stay together and approach those gold standards moving forward, the Penguins will have a fourth line to be envied.
“You don't expect your fourth line to be scoring three goals every game,” Reaves said, “But when we can chip in and get some energy, I think it's an extra bonus.”