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Penguins

Penguins lineup split along party lines

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, 2:27 p.m.
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Brian Dumoulin (8), Zach Aston-Reese (46) and Phil Kessel (81) celebrate after Aston-Reese scored against Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Brian Dumoulin (8), Zach Aston-Reese (46) and Phil Kessel (81) celebrate after Aston-Reese scored against Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

CHICAGO – Thanks to injuries to scoring-line forwards Patric Hornqvist and Dominik Simon, the Pittsburgh Penguins can draw a clear distinction between their top six and bottom six forwards.

Scoring-line forwards are in the top six and checking-line forwards are in the bottom six heading into a matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night.

It reminds winger Zach Aston-Reese of American politics.

Really.

“At the end of the day, it’s the same goal: Put the puck in the net and win the hockey game,” Aston-Reese explained. “It might be like Republicans and Democrats, though. You want the same goal, but the way of doing it is a little different.”

The Penguins are hoping the two groups can co-exist a little more peacefully than Republicans and Democrats in Congress do these days.

In most cases, coach Mike Sullivan likes to spread out his scoring options among his top three lines. Hornqvist and Simon being out prompted a change in that philosophy.

In Tuesday’s practice, Sidney Crosby centered Jake Guentzel and Derick Brassard on the top line and Evgeni Malkin skated between Tanner Pearson and Phil Kessel on the second line. They’ve combined to score 56 goals this season.

The third line had Riley Sheahan centering Aston-Reese and Bryan Rust while Derek Grant, Matt Cullen, Jean-Sebastien Dea and Garrett Wilson rotated into the fourth line. They’ve combined for seven goals this season.

“We’ve talked about it for a few games now,” Sullivan said. “Are we better served with moving the offensive people together and seeing if we can get results that way and creating more energy line and checking lines and things of that capacity in the bottom two?”

For now, the answer is yes, which creates some subtle changes in the way players like Aston-Reese approach the game.

Sheahan and Rust create offense differently than, say, Brassard and Kessel do.

“When you play with more skilled guys, you have a little more pressure to make plays on yourself,” Aston-Reese said. “When you play with like Riley or Rusty or when I was playing with Cully, you could chip pucks into space and kind of create more battle situations than more fancy plays, I guess you could say.”

There’s some merit, Aston-Reese said, to the idea of the bottom six playing in the offensive zone, creating energy and wearing down the opposition so that the top six can then step on the ice and do what they do best.

“I think back to when I first got called up,” Aston-Reese said. “My first couple games here I was playing with (Ryan Reaves) and that’s one of the things he said to me on the bench. Like, ‘Reeser, let’s just set the next line up. We’re probably not going to score, but just set the next line up.’ That’s one of the things that just sticks with you. It’s been with me since then.”

Aston-Reese, for the record, said he considers himself an independent capable of working with either party depending on the circumstances.

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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