The Pittsburgh Penguins did what they needed to do on Tuesday night in Game 2 of their First Round series against the New York Islanders.
They scored the first goal. They built on the lead. They held on to it.
Jeff Carter scored another big goal, Bryan Rust got a little puck luck, Tristan Jarry rebounded in a big way, and all of it resulted in huge win to even the series.
The unsung heroes of the Game 2 win was the trio of Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, and Zach Aston-Reese. They put up in big time effort, especially in the third period, to help lockdown the win. Even though they did not appear on the scoresheet, it is not a stretch to suggest that they were the Penguins’ best line on the night and one of the biggest factors in the win. They were that good.
By this point their success as a trio should not be a surprise. While they may not be a juggernaut offensively they are as good as it gets defensively in the NHL. All three players are outstanding defensively, and when you put them together become one of the stingiest trios in the league. As a fourth line, you are probably not going to do much better than this (even though right now with Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup it is more of a third line).
How good were they on Tuesday? Let us examine a few numbers.
- They played 10:18 together during 5-on-5 play, the second highest total among Penguins line combinations, behind the Sidney Crosby line and just ahead of the Jeff Carter line.
- During that ice-time the Penguins held sizable edges in total shot attempts (13-6), shots on goal (9-5), scoring chances (6-3), high-danger chances (2-0), and expected goals (0.38 to 0.16). They dominated possession and zone time.
- What makes that even more impressive is they spent a significant portion of that ice-time going head-to-head against the Islanders’ best line which is centered by Mathew Barzal. Speaking of which, Barzal has been remarkably quiet over the first two games of the series, managing just four total shot attempts over the first two games. He has seen a lot of Blueger, Tanev, and Aston-Reese during that time.
For as good as that line was throughout the game, they were perhaps at their best in the third period — and especially later in the third period — in helping the Penguins protect their one-goal lead. Every time you looked at the TV it seemed as if that line was on the ice in the third period and they were doing something to keep the puck pinned deep in the Islanders’ zone. They not only maintained possession and helped limit the Islanders’ offensive chances, they also created a couple of scoring chances for themselves. None were better than Aston-Reese’s look right on the doorstop that he happened to shoot right into the leg pad of Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov late in the third period.
Based on what we have seen over the first two games it is pretty clear that coach Mike Sullivan likes this matchup against the Barzal line, and it is going to be interesting to see if he can still get it as often as he wants in New York in Games 3 and 4 of the series.
We spent so much time going into the playoffs looking at the injury situations with Evgeni Malkin, Tristan Jarry, and even Mike Matheson that it was easy to overlook Tanev’s return and the impact it could make. I was one of the people that was extremely critical of that contract, but you can not deny the energy and presence that he brings to the lineup. His speed is game-changing, his defensive play and work on the penalty kill is a major factor, and he is a perfect fit with Blueger and Aston-Reese when it comes to building a complete shutdown line.
Their ability to work together is a big part of the Penguins’ forward depth that could make them an extremely tough out in the playoffs. You need to have four lines that you can count on, and the Penguins have that. Is this line going to score a ton of goals? No. It is not. But with the other three lines that can they do not really need to produce a ton of offense to be impactful. So while they may not actually score a lot of goals they will keep the puck in the offensive zone and wear teams down. They will keep teams out of the Penguins defensive zone and shut them down defensively when they are. They give you a fourth (or if needed a third) line that can give the Penguins an edge.
They did exactly that on Tuesday night their Game 2 win.