Going back to mid-March when a fairly serious Malkin injury signaled doom and gloom, Nick Bonino stepped in between Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, and a juggernaut was born. A speedster with skill + good two-way center + world-class scoring winger made for the best line in the NHL down the stretch.
They were clicking so well that when Malkin did make his return in the playoffs, the question was "Um, what do we do with this guy now?" Malkin plus two warm bodies going through a turnstile does not a good hockey line make, so for a little while there was a legitimate concern that three scoring lines might be a pipe dream.
Mike Sullivan, smart coach as he is, understood that Malkin needs some consistency and familiarity with his wingers, so in the end he opted to stick with Chris Kunitz and Bryan Rust. Kunitz, while still a forechecking fiend with battle level permanently on max, was not converting chances the way he used to.
Rust was incredibly fast but was also not deemed to be a good finisher. For a bit the line mostly treaded water, but somewhere in the middle of the Tampa series they found their flow and things looked much better from there on. Malkin found his legs and his galloping touch, and the assists started piling up. Chris Kunitz always had chemistry with Malkin, going back to 2011-12 season, but he also started setting up the rookie speedster Bryan Rust for some awfully timely goals. Kunitz also led all skaters in possession during the Tampa series, with Malkin and Rust not far behind.
In the end, the Pens did roll three legitimately excellent scoring lines. Leading the way points-wise was the HBK line with 17 goals and a staggering 45 combined points in 18 games. The Crosby line contributed 13 goals and combined for 33 total points. And don't look now, but the Malkin line produced equally well as the Crosby line, putting up the identical 13 goals and adding up to 33 total points.
TB-PIT series. Better team won.— Muneeb Alam (@muneebalamcu) May 27, 2016
<runs away sobbing> pic.twitter.com/9qRA8Zlf0N
If anything, this is what gives me hope for the Sharks series. That team rolls three terrific lines, but we do as well. It has all the makings of a fantastic series for fans and a nightmare series for defensemen and goalies.