Fourth down: Penguins want more from bottom line
When coach Mike Sullivan drew up his lineup for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final last June in Nashville, the wingers on his fourth line were Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin.
Hornqvist broke a scoreless tie late in the third period, Hagelin added an empty-netter and the Penguins secured the franchise's fifth championship.
In the understatement of the century, the Penguins' fourth-line forwards haven't made quite as dramatic an impact this season.
When Josh Jooris made his Penguins debut earlier this month in Toronto, he became the 14th player to start a game on the team's fourth line. Those 14 players have been used in 18 combinations.
None of the 18 trios has taken the world by storm.
Only two — the combination of Tom Kuhnhackl, Riley Sheahan and Ryan Reaves, and the grouping of Kuhnhackl, Reaves and Carter Rowney — have scored as many as three goals at even strength this season.
Part of that is because of the way Sullivan has distributed ice time.
After the departure of center Matt Cullen, who signed with the Minnesota Wild in July to play one last season in his home state, Sullivan has used his fourth line sparingly.
Last season, four forwards started more than 30 games on the fourth line. Cullen averaged almost 14 minutes per game. Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson and Eric Fehr averaged more than 10 minutes.
This season, three forwards started more than 30 games on the fourth line. Kuhnhackl averages just over 10 minutes, Rowney averages just under 10 minutes and Reaves played less than seven minutes per game before being traded to Vegas.
Sullivan realizes he doesn't put his fourth-line forwards in position to light up the scoreboard, so he adjusts expectations accordingly.
“We want our fourth line to make a difference. They can do that in different ways,” Sullivan said. “They can help us generate momentum. They can be sound defensively. They can establish a forecheck. They can control territory. They can create scoring chances. They can help us kill penalties.
“When we put guys in our lineup, we don't want them to just kill minutes out there and kill time. We want them to make a difference and help us win.”
For much of this season, the fourth line has been a place for penalty killers to hang out and play a few even-strength shifts until an opposing power play starts and they're really needed.
With eight games left in the regular season, that's still the case to a large degree. When Kuhnhackl and Sheahan are on the ice, for example, their No. 1 goal is to not give up any goals.
“I feel like that's our mindset every game,” Kuhnhackl said. “We don't want to get scored on. If you get scored on, that gets to your confidence right away. That's our main priority, we don't get scored on and we get some momentum.”
There's a possibility, however, the fourth line might take on a slightly more offensive personality in coming days.
Rookie wingers Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon, who have shown some scoring potential, are working their way back from injuries and could be ready to go before the playoffs start.
If they're healthy, Aston-Reese or Simon could add some offensive pop to the fourth line or bump Conor Sheary down into a fourth-line role.
That would boost the line's offensive aspirations.
“We know we can contribute,” Sheahan said. “One of the strong points of the team is our depth. I think when we go out there, our mindset is to contribute, try to play in the offensive zone and put some goals in.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.