One of the reasons I have recently started to change my opinion on what the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins are capable of is the fact they seem to have found a third line that can make life miserable for opponents. Think back to the 2016 Stanley Cup run and how all of that started to come together. Yes, the top-tier players were great and so was the goaltending. But in a lot of those games it was the third line (then made up of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, and Carl Hagelin) that ended up doing the damage offensively.
Sometimes that is how it works in the playoffs. Your best players go head-to-head with the other team’s best players and they might cancel each other out, whether it is matching them offensively goal for goal or just shutting each other down.
At that point it comes down to which team has the better depth.
That was my concern with the 2017-18 team, and continued to be my concern for much of this season. Suddenly, though, that concern is starting to fade because of what we are seeing from the Nick Bjugstad, Patric Hornqvist, Dominik Simon line.
Since that trio has been assembled they have been, in a word, great. Even if it has not always shown up in a tangible way on the scoreboard.
We know Simon’s shortcomings as a player; he is going to do everything well, drive play, make nifty passes to set up linemates, and control the puck, but he is going to struggle when it comes to finishing.
Hornqvist is all effort, all the time, but his offensive production has completely dried up in what has been one of the worst extended slumps of his career.
I don’t want to say I was down on Bjugstad early on, but I was just having a hard time seeing where and how he fit long-term, and just felt that McCann was the prize to that trade. While I still think the latter part is true, Bjugstad seems to have found his place.
Even with all of that going on with each individual player, when you put them together they have been as good as any other line on the team. Maybe even better.
Over the past 15 games the Bjugstad-Hornqvist-Simon trio has played more than 125 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together, and the way they have carried the play has been off the charts.
They are controlling more than 59 percent of the total shot attempts in those minutes (140 attempts for, only 94 scoring chances against).
They have generated more than 61 percent of the scoring chances (62 scoring chances for, only 39 scoring chances against).
They have generated more than 71 percent of the high-danger scoring chances (28 high-danger chances for, only 11 high-danger chances against).
Most importantly, they have also outscored teams by a 5-2 margin.
All of that is great, from the outrageously positive differentials to the way they have completely shut teams down. The only thing they haven’t really done, despite all of that territorial domination and the chances they have created, is consistently finish.
That finally changed on Sunday night, and at a crucial time, when they scored a huge insurance goal early in the third period of the Penguins’ 3-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. It was well earned and deserved from everyone involved.
For Hornqvist, it snapped a laughably long even-strength goal drought and was a nice reward for all of the near misses he has had over the past few weeks, including a couple more earlier on Sunday. The biggest concern for him now, unfortunately, is his health after taking another hit to the head on Sunday (and looking bad coming off the ice ... only to return and get into a wrestling match with Justin Williams).
For Simon, who really made the entire play happen with his zone entry and slick pass to set up Hornqvist, it was another reminder of the type of players he is capable of making and why the coaching staff values him so highly and keeps giving him a lengthy leash when so many fans get so frustrated with him.
Overall, this group simply works, and it has been a game-changer for the Penguins over the past couple of weeks. If they keep generating chances the way they have, you have to think that more goals are going to come. If you get that out of your third-line, with a top-six that features Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Phil Kessel, and presumably come playoff time, Evgeni Malkin, you are going to be an extremely difficult team to beat.
The Penguins have made quite a few bizarre roster decisions over the past two years (some have worked out; some have not) but getting Bjugstad and McCann has been exactly what they needed to complement the top half of the lineup, while they finally seem to have found the role that the former is best suited for.