Penguins need more from 3rd, 4th lines
Despite running their losing streak to five games, the Pittsburgh Penguins had improved work ethic and attention to detail in a 2-1 loss at Washington on Wednesday night.
There were more scoring chances than they could count. They had a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal from Sidney Crosby and a strong performance in net from Casey DeSmith.
What they didn’t get was offense from their secondary scorers.
It could have made the difference in a game that tight, but it didn’t come.
That’s been the rule, not the exception, for the Penguins this season.
They’ve scored 47 goals, getting 33 from their six highest-scoring forwards, eight from their two most prolific defensemen and a grand total of six from everybody else.
“I think our depth is one of our strong points. So the third and fourth line, we have to take some ownership and try to contribute a little more,” center Riley Sheahan said.
Before burying the Penguins’ depth scorers, some context is required. It’s perfectly normal for a team’s top players to dwarf the rest of the team on the stat sheet. Washington’s top six forwards and two defensemen have scored 43 of the team’s 51 goals, for example.
Still, the lack of production is a glaring sore spot for a team off to a disappointing 6-5-3 start.
“On this team, you have superstars on the top two lines. If you’re on the third line or fourth line, you’re seeing a better matchup for yourself, a more favorable matchup,” winger Carl Hagelin said. “That’s one of the things you’ve got to take advantage of because those two get a lot of attention from the other team.”
The depth-scoring problem for the Penguins is two-fold.
First, it has dried up completely. No one outside of the top six forwards and two defensemen has scored a goal since Matt Cullen capped off a 9-1 win in Calgary on Oct. 25.
Second, the third and fourth lines are rarely making significant positive impacts when they don’t score.
“What has helped us as we’ve gone through a lot of seasons is the timely goal from the third or fourth line,” Cullen said. “We need, as bottom-six guys, to either chip in with a goal at times or even as a important is having a shift where you can turn the momentum or consistently grind in the offensive zone or tip the ice and have a positive impact.”
If general manager Jim Rutherford decides to shake up his struggling team with roster changes as he suggested he might on his radio show Wednesday, the bottom six is the most logical target.
The Penguins aren’t bumping up against the salary cap at the moment, but that will change when Justin Schultz returns from the long-term injured list in February, so acquiring a big-ticket player would be difficult.
Rutherford said there’s nothing on the market he thinks will improve his defense corps, and reports indicate the Penguins are considering dealing prospect Daniel Sprong. Given Sprong’s limited trade value at this point, bottom-six help might be the best the Penguins could hope to get in return.
Barring a trade, the Penguins could reshape their forward depth with call-ups from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as well.
They already began that process Wednesday night in Washington, inserting Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson into the lineup. Centered by Cullen, they had a few shifts that served to build momentum and create scoring chances.
If that continues and the Penguins build off their strong performance in a loss, the bottom-six woes could disappear. If not, it will be an area to watch going forward.
“I believe in what we have,” Cullen said. “We just have to be better.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.