Penguins keep Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel on high-octane top line
OTTAWA – Coach Mike Sullivan is a big believer in the idea that the best line combinations sometimes happen by accident.
If a hit by fringe NHL defenseman Dalton Prout didn’t injure Evgeni Malkin late in the 2015-16 regular season, the famous HBK Line might never have come together and the most recent era of championship Penguins hockey might not have begun.
With Dominik Simon already out with a lower-body injury, Patric Hornqvist left Thursday’s game against the New York Islanders with an upper-body injury after one period. Sullivan was therefore forced to scramble his lines.
When the hopper finished hopping, Sidney Crosby had Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel on his wings.
The combo worked together to score three goals against the Islanders and stayed together for morning skate Saturday as the Penguins prepared to face the Ottawa Senators.
“I thought their game the other night was strong,” Sullivan said. “We thought we’d start there and see where it goes.”
The upside of the combination is obvious. It would be tough for any trio in the league to match their high-end speed, skill and talent.
“When Phil plays with those two guys, there’s a whole other threat to that line because of the elite player than Phil is, his scoring ability, his passing ability, his speed, his ability to make plays off the rush,’ Sullivan said.
It’s also easy to see why Sullivan has been hesitant to use the combo much over the past couple of seasons.
At times, all that world-class offense comes at the expense of defense.
“Sid’s a good 200-foot player. He plays on both sides of the puck. He’s good in his own end. He does, I think, bring an element of a defensive conscience to it, as does Jake,” Sullivan said. “Jake is a guy that can play at both ends of the rink as well. I do think that line has the ability to be good at both ends of the rink, and we’re going to need them to be if we’re going to have success.”
Crosby and Kessel also have different philosophies about creating scoring chances, which can lead to a styles clash at times. At the risk of oversimplifying, Crosby plays a north-south game and excels in high-traffic areas while Kessel thinks more east-west and likes to use his speed to play in open ice.
Crosby said there are some different things he has to be aware of when playing with Kessel.
“He’s so dangerous one-on-one and creating space for himself that sometimes you can just kind of give it to him and think he’s going to make something happen,” Crosby said. “I think it’s trying to support him and make sure you give him the opportunity to make plays.”
The adjustments Guentzel has to make when he’s joined by Crosby and Kessel, meanwhile, are a lot simpler.
“When you’re playing with those two players, you just try to get the puck as much you can and let them do the work,” Guentzel said. “They’re two high-end players.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.