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Penguins 'Firing Line' is sweet science

| Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012

There is no exact science for hockey chemistry, save, perhaps, molecular science.

Think of the atom.

It's made up of a nucleus, with electrons spinning around it and held together by charges. The outer bodies don't move in perfect patterns, but they work with the center to create a common energy.

From there, think of the Penguins' terrific top line.

It's made up of Evgeni Malkin, with James Neal skating alongside him and Chris Kunitz supporting both. They don't have much in the way of set plays, but they cycle relentlessly through the attacking zone and have generated more offense than any trio in the NHL this season.

In the 32 games since Dan Bylsma united them in early December -- including a breathtaking Malkin hat trick and Kunitz's initial strike in Saturday's 8-1 blowout of the Tampa Bay Lightning -- Malkin, Neal and Kunitz have combined for 49 goals and 64 assists.

That's 48.5 percent of all of the Penguins' goals in that span. That's an average of 3.53 points per game. That's a 19-12-1 record for the team despite being without Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal much of that time.

All told, that's astounding.

"Everything is there," general manager Ray Shero said. "Geno and James have size, and Chris plays like he's 6-3. They all can skate, they all get to the hard areas, they all shoot, pass, cycle ... and they just play off each other."

Let's take a microscope to it.

The nucleus

Paul Steigerwald, the Penguins' play-by-play man, has dubbed them "The Firing Line," and the moniker certainly fits: Neal leads the NHL with 251 shots, Malkin is second with 247 and Kunitz 50th at 169.

That's a barrage of unfriendly fire.

If "Firing Line" sticks -- on paper and on the ice -- it will join a lively, if limited, franchise lineage. The "Century Line" of the 1970s was aptly named for Jean Pronovost, Syl Apps and Lowell MacDonald all being 100-point men. The team's greatest trio, the "Super Line" of the 1990s, was a jaw-dropping assembly of Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis and Jaromir Jagr. But there haven't been many, mostly because hockey lines rarely last, oh, even a month or so.

The most common element to a great line is that it focuses on at least one truly great player, and this one's no exception.

"Everything starts with Geno," Kunitz said.

"What I think about more than anything out there is getting Geno the puck as much as possible," Neal said.

Malkin is the NHL's leading scorer, a brilliant shooter and passer with the passion and playbook of a fourth-line grinder. And now, fed the puck again and again by Neal and Kunitz, he has erupted for perhaps the best sustained stretch of his career.

"Malkin always was dangerous," New Jersey goaltender Johan Hedberg said. "But now that he has this chemistry with Neal, he's at another level."

Malkin acknowledges this is the best line of his career -- "Oh, for sure," he said -- and he credits the collective work ethic: "Why our line works is all of us work hard in practice. We know how to move the puck in the offensive zone, and we practice it."

But there has to be more to it than sweat. What impresses Bylsma most about how Neal and Kunitz work with Malkin is that they know how to help without hindering.

"We have players who don't fit well with Geno because you've got to either move with him, or you're going to run into him," Bylsma said. "That's something we've seen from Tyler Kennedy in the past."

Another requirement: Pass without breaking Malkin's stride.

"One thing these guys do extremely well for (Malkin) that I haven't seen with others is getting him the puck in motion," Bylsma said. "When Geno gets it while he's flying, suddenly you've got three guys chasing Geno, and Neal and Kunitz can go get open."

"Usually I'll just pass to an area, put it in space so Geno can catch up to it," Neal said. "He's always coming with speed, which I can relate to. I feel like I can tell when he wants the puck and how."

If either forgets, Malkin isn't reluctant to remind them.

"Geno's our most vocal guy," Kunitz said. "You can always hear him out there. He doesn't just want the puck. He demands it."

The electron

All the great players -- save, perhaps, Sidney Crosby -- eventually find their soul mate of a linemate. Gordie Howe had Ted Lindsay. Wayne Gretzky had Jari Kurri. Lemieux had ... Robbie Brown?

The graceful Lemieux never was understood by a linemate as he was by the sluggish-skating, soft-shooting Brown. It's not always the expected match.

When Shero acquired Neal a year ago, the intent was to finally find that winger for Crosby. But Crosby was -- and remains -- out with a concussion. Malkin missed the second half of last season, too. That left Neal flying solo and, not surprisingly, struggling to finish with just two goals in two months.

This season, Malkin and Neal hit it off from the start of training camp.

"He's one of the best players in the world," Neal said. "Anyone would benefit from being with him."

But two somewhat similar players?

Both Malkin and Neal love to be on the puck, which usually results in oil-and-water chemistry. But they almost immediately turned their respective strengths into a joint asset. Each carried the puck just long enough to deflect attention from the other.

"It didn't take long to see it would work," Bylsma said.

Nor that they operated on similar wavelengths. Malkin likens Neal to a one-man combination of his 2007-08 linemates, Petr Sykora for his sniping and Ryan Malone for his feel along the boards.

"It's very good with James, always," Malkin said.

"The way Geno thinks the game, the way he plays it ... it's hard to explain," Neal said. "I don't want to compare anything about myself to a player like that. But I can tell you, when we're out there together, I can see what he's going to do."

That begins on the boards, where Malkin and Neal often cycle in opposite directions. Those are some of the toughest passes to complete, but Neal shows just as soft a touch as his linemate and, according to Shero, "makes really good plays in tight areas."

When Neal isn't cycling, he's setting up for a shot, in the high slot or above a faceoff circle. His wrist shot is strong enough to score from long range -- a rarity in today's NHL -- and his release is among the quickest in the league.

"James understands how to support the play but also how to get lost in those soft areas," Bylsma said. "It's not like he leaves the zone, then pops back in like Brett Hull used to. He stays involved and finds an opening where he can."

From there, it's stick down, ready to shoot.

"What you have to remember when playing with Geno is that, even when he's doing all his fancy moves, he still knows where you are," Neal said. "That puck's coming back to you."

The charge

Can anyone recall Jaroslav Pouzar flanking Gretzky and Kurri for two Stanley Cups in Edmonton?

Mikael Renberg with Philadelphia's famed Legion of Doom?

How about Bob Errey grinding away for Lemieux and Brown?

Who remembers the third guy on a great line, the glue that hold it together?

Kunitz is the lowest scorer with the lowest profile on this line, but he easily hears the most praise inside Penguins circles for being the glue for Malkin and Neal.

"He's very important for us," Malkin said. "He's a fast guy; he has good hands; he works hard, does a great job on the forecheck and does an unbelievable job in the defensive zone."

"He helps me and Geno more than I can tell you," Neal said.

Kunitz, like Neal, bases his game off Malkin. But it's different. On the cycle, rather than whirling with Malkin, Kunitz will hover nearby. If an opponent engages Malkin or pokes the puck away, Kunitz is right there to collect.

"You can give puck support while stationary, 10 feet or so away," Bylsma said.

"Geno does a lot of ad-libbing, but you still have to try to read off him," Kunitz said. "I need to be there when he's in trouble, maybe get it back to him, maybe chip it behind the net. He loves it back there when he's in trouble."

On the finish, Kunitz, all 5-foot-9 of him, will apply his underappreciated net-front skills by going to the crease.

"He's the big man," Malkin said with a grin.

Kunitz long has been Crosby's most consistent linemate, and he won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim alongside tall trees Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. And part of the reason for both is a personality that balances humility with confidence.

"I always remind myself to play to my strengths," Kunitz said.

And yet ...

"I know great players want the puck. But if I've got to put the puck deep, and they're going to yell at me for it, that's fine. You have to remind yourself that you're on that line for a reason, too."

"Chris understands there are times that they're asking for the puck, and it's the wrong time to give them the puck," Bylsma said. "That's not easy to do."

For all the skill on the line, there isn't much that looks easy about what they achieve.

"It just seems to work itself out -- that chemistry," Kunitz said. "Maybe it's not the fancy passing and the rush plays that some lines do, but it's more a case of executing to the skill you have."

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