STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS: Penguins finding success with role players
PITTSBURGH — Tanner Glass started every game for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the regular season, his grit providing the fourth line with a rugged presence to take some of the heat off superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Playing time has proven more difficult in the postseason. Glass has watched six of Pittsburgh’s last seven games from the press box. It’s an ego-testing vantage point for a player who helped the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago.
Glass is healthy. He’s just not a part of coach Dan Bylsma’s plan at the moment.
Such is both the blessing and the curse of playing for the league’s most talent-laden roster.
“You look at the lineup, you can’t say, ‘I should be in ahead of this guy or that guy,’” Glass said. “On this team, we’ve got such a deep team and such a great group of players, you’ve just got to stay ready.”
Hardly an issue these days for the Penguins, who have roared into the Eastern Conference finals on the strength of their stars and a supporting cast that is showing Pittsburgh is hardly just “The Crosby Show.”
The conference finals will get under way later this week, but the schedule still hasn’t been announced.
The Penguins currently have eight players in the top 20 in postseason scoring through the first two rounds. Sure, Malkin and Crosby are doing their thing — combining for 31 points through 11 games — but Pittsburgh is also receiving instant offense from the plug-and-play guys toward the bottom of the depth chart.
Forwards Tyler Kennedy, Joe Vitale, Beau Bennett, Jussi Jokinen and Brenden Morrow have joined Glass as healthy scratches. All five have found ways to respond when they see their number written on the dry erase board following a game-day skate.
Kennedy came off the bench to spark a win in Game 5 of the first-round series with the New York Islanders and hasn’t missed a game since. Vitale missed the first four games of the New York series but produced an assist for his first NHL playoff point in Game 5. Morrow didn’t dress for a playoff game for the first time in his 13-year career in Game 4 against Ottawa, then responded with the opening goal in the series clincher two nights later.
Bylsma downplays the suggestion that he has a sixth sense for when a role player is “due.” Whenever he shakes things up, it’s more based on scouting and matchups than gut instinct. Of course, there’s also the simple luxury of having guys battling for time on the fourth line who would be top-six forwards elsewhere.
“We have good players that are not in the lineup,” Bylsma said. “When we inserted (Vitale) into the first-round series, his skill set ... his speed was something we thought we needed, and he made an immediate impact when he came into that series.”
Still, it did little to ensure more playing time for Vitale. He sat out the final three games of the Ottawa series while Bylsma went with the likes of Jokinen, a better two-way player and an experienced faceoff man.
Vitale didn’t let the benching bother him. Maybe because it didn’t feel like a benching. He understands Bylsma’s job is to win the Stanley Cup, not to make Vitale feel better. Some games, that means Vitale will be in the lineup. Others, it means he’ll wear a nice suit and watch from the top of the arena.
“It’s just a different atmosphere,” Vitale said. “You’re just pulling for the guy next to you. If Jussi goes in for me, I’m sitting up above and I really want him to be at the very best he can be. When you win and you’re in the locker room and you’re not sweating, you’re just as happy as the guys who are. That’s just the kind of environment it is right now.”
Jokinen and Morrow both came over in trade deadline deals meant to bolster the Penguins for a Cup run. Jokinen recorded 11 points in 10 games while filling in on the top line for Crosby at the end of the regular season as Crosby recovered from a broken jaw.
Even that didn’t stop Jokinen from sitting out five playoff games. While he may have been slowed by an injury, he also lost out to a hot hand in Vitale. When Vitale went cold, Jokinen found himself right back on the ice without so much as a word from Bylsma.
“If you want to win Cups, that’s how it has to be,” Jokinen said. “We have 16 forwards and nine really good NHL defensemen on this team. Not everybody can play every night.”
The ones that do, however, have fueled a team that is 8-3 in the postseason while averaging 4.27 goals per game, a full goal ahead of everybody else. Sure, a potent power play helps. So does having Olympic gold medalists (Morrow), 30-goal scorers (Jokinen) and Cup winners (Kennedy) fighting for playing time.
Don’t expect Bylsma to change his methods anytime soon. While Kennedy and Morrow will likely be fixtures against the Bruins, the same can’t be said for Jokinen, Vitale or Bennett. Bylsma will pick and choose as he goes along, trying to decipher what his team needs in a given moment.
His touch has been golden so far. And the players say they can deal with the uncertainty if it leads to a championship.
“We’ve got a great group of extras who have gone in and out,” Vitale said. “They’ve made plays when they’re in, and they’ve kept guys up when they’re out. ... We’ve really just removed all selfishness. This isn’t an individual thing. This is a group thing.”