Penguins' Great Depth Means Some Must Learn to Sit
PITTSBURGH -- Tyler Kennedy will do anything to win -- even if it means taking in a game from the press box in a suit.
He usually makes more of a noticeable impact, though, while in uniform and on the ice.
The speedy, feisty wing broke into the NHL more than five years ago and has been a regular in the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup ever since. A stalwart on what many associated with the team in recent years proudly refer to as "The Best Third Line in Hockey," Kennedy hasn't had much experience being a healthy scratch.
While that's changed at times during these Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kennedy would gladly trade the risk of a forced night off to play on a team with a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup.
"When you play hockey, you do anything to win," Kennedy said after practice as the Penguins prepare for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday (8 p.m., NBC, CBC, RDS). "If it's sitting, you know you have to do it because it's kind of part of the game -- but you've got to push to get back in the lineup. That's part of a good depth team -- guys pushing each other to be their best every night."
On the Penguins' loaded roster, there's plenty of players doing the pushing. When coach Dan Bylsma makes his lineup decisions for a game, he has no shortage of quality options for the third and fourth lines. That's led to what had to have been some awkward discussions for him to inform a player used to being in the lineup that he will be a scratch.
Kennedy was part of the lineup all season until the Stanley Cup Playoff opener. Jussi Jokinen had seven goals and 11 points in 10 games with Pittsburgh after being acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline, but he has been a spectator for five of the Penguins' 11 playoff games. Tanner Glass did not miss a game all season -- he's been scratched six times in the postseason. Beau Bennett had a power-play goal 3:30 into the playoffs but has appeared in three of 10 games since.
Joe Vitale appeared in 101 regular-season games over the past two seasons but has been active for four in the playoffs. Dustin Jeffrey was dressed for half of the Penguins' games in the regular season but has not sniffed the lineup in the postseason.
The same is true among the Penguins' defensemen, with nine NHL-caliber players when healthy but six spots available nightly.
"I've never been on a team with this much depth," Jokinen said. "And I probably won't be ever again."
It's been more pronounced in the playoffs because Pittsburgh is fully healthy at forward for the first time this season. Also, the Penguins added three forwards -- Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Jokinen -- as the NHL Trade Deadline approached.
"I think when Tanner Glass is sitting next to Jussi Jokinen in the press box for a game, he's sitting next to a really good player and a really good teammate and a guy who's had a lot of success in the playoffs and playoff situations," Bylsma said. "Joe Vitale, I think understands when he looks up and sees Jussi Jokinen as our fourth-line center right now … he's not playing because there's good players playing. I thought Joe's comment, that he doesn't really view it as getting scratched, I think that's a genuine feeling on our team."
It has to be. Barring multiple injuries, for any given playoff game, four NHL-caliber forwards and three defensemen won't be able to crack the Penguins lineup.
It's no coincidence, then, that Pittsburgh is one of the final two teams standing in the Eastern Conference. For all the star power on the Penguins and Bruins, neither team is top-heavy. Each can roll a productive fourth line and has used nine defensemen.
"Both teams have gotten to this point because of depth," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "We've relied on that to get here, and it'll take more of that if we want to continue. It's been a huge part of our team and it will continue to be the same."
Kennedy has five points over the past seven games and leads Penguins forwards with a plus-6 rating after not playing in the first four games of the postseason. He carries a three-game point streak into this series and has made himself noticed on virtually every shift because of his skating, tenacious forecheck and heavy, accurate shot.
"When he did get inserted back into the lineup, he immediately gave us speed on the third and fourth lines and was a big factor against the Islanders, and he continued to play well and add that to our team in the second round," Bylsma said.
Kennedy would seem to have a legitimate beef when Bylsma elects to sit him in favor of someone else. Maybe, if the Penguins weren't as close-knit a group, he would speak up.
"Everyone gets along, and that makes it a lot easier," Kennedy said. "And it makes it a lot easier to be positive and keep the guys excited. Whenever we win, it's a full team win -- it's not just individuals, and that's part of a good team and a good family we have here."
Bylsma said, "If you could come off the ice with the guys after the game, the five, six, seven guys that are waiting for them don't have any sweat on them, but they're just as involved and just as excited about the success as a team. Each one of them has had the opportunity at times to go in, and may get that again. It's a good thing to have in terms of depth of our team. We have good players who are not in the lineup every night, but who go in and have added to our team and helped us be successful."