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Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust shining early in Pens training camp

The key to the Pens might be the high-powered second line

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Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

One of the biggest strengths of the Pittsburgh Penguins this year, like many years before, will be their second line. If you’re an opponent, just think about it; you know you have to deal with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel on the first shift of the game and as the cycle rotates through the lineup. That draws a lot of attention and usually the responsibility of the top defenders and other players you have. They take their shifts and go to the bench and out comes the second line.

The second line is a real problem. Pittsburgh really doesn’t have a “second line”, they have a 1B line with Evgeni Malkin. Now, for the first time since probably 2011-12 (when Crosby was out most the year anyways), Malkin has the pieces around him to really do damage.

And in the first team scrimmage on Tuesday, both of those wingers in Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust scored goals in a 3-0 win for the team led by the Malkin line playing against the Crosby line.

There’s plenty to be excited about with Zucker and Rust, but the straw that stirs the drink remains Evgeni Malkin. In part due to a super-productive 2019-20, Malkin should be expected to be one of the best offensive players in 2021, if his health allows.

Josh Yohe from The Athletic, who observed the scrimmage, agreed, saying in part:

The Penguins’ “second line” of Evgeni Malkin, Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust was easily the best forward trio in the scrimmage. Zucker and Rust scored goals and Malkin, much like in July’s camp, skated beautifully. I know, I know, you’ve heard that before. Malkin looked great in July’s camp and then struggled against the Canadiens. But ask yourself this: Would you rather Malkin look a step slow in camp? I didn’t think so.

The Penguins are built in a way where they need their top lines to be stars to win. The good news is that their top lines are full of productive players. It’s a great sign that Rust looked awesome on Tuesday, picking up where he left off last season as a point-per-game player. Zucker has been an instant great addition to the team, scoring eight goals last year in 19 total games in a Penguin jersey, including the playoff (a 34 goal pace in a normal 82 game season). Zucker has the wheels, hands and offensive instinct to be a real weapon and is a big time piece of the puzzle now.

Add that up with the creativity and offensive skill that Malkin has been bringing to the table for the last 15 years and that makes for a big time advantage coming from the next line out after Crosby.

The Pens are in a tough division with Boston, Washington, Philly and the New York teams. None of them boast as dangerous as an offensive second line, or really have the defensive depth beyond the first pair to deal with what the Pittsburgh depth can create. Given health this could be a major advantage in a short season as the Pens look to extend their playoff streak and punch a tough ticket into the playoffs.

Nothing really adds up or matters until the season begins next week, but for now there are very promising signs about the Pens’ having a line outside of Crosby clicking early in camp and seemingly ready to roll when the games count.