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Penguins counting on fourth-line forwards

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins center Matt Cullen fights for the puck with the Blue Jackets’ Tommy Cross in the first period Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

Beat writer Jonathan Bombulie previews the Penguins in a five-part series leading up to Thursday’s season opener.

From Tampa Bay to Vancouver and all points in between, every NHL coach says it at this time of year.

They all love their forward depth, and they all plan to gain a competitive advantage by consistently rolling four lines all season.

Some of them are telling the truth and will stick with the plan through April. Some of them think they’re telling the truth but will be proven wrong and change their tune once their bottom-six forwards start to get exposed. Others are lying, knowing full well they will be lucky to have one or two lines they really trust by Christmas.

Which category does Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan fall into?

After practice Sunday morning in Cranberry, he checked all the fourth-line rhetorical boxes.

“Going into training camp and coming out of training camp, we have a good feeling with the depth that we have,” he said.

And …

“We believe we have the makings of four lines that we think we can play.”

But then he talked about why he really means it.

“We’ve been a team, historically, that has played four lines. We believe that’s part of the reason for some of the success that we’ve enjoyed over the last three years.”

All things being equal, Sullivan, indeed, has proven he prefers to give regular shifts to all four lines.

The best example is Game 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final in Nashville. On that night, Matt Cullen centered Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist on the fourth line to start the game. Hagelin and Hornqvist were the only players to score, and Cullen led the team’s forwards in ice time.

But last year at this time, Sullivan went away from his preference.

His top options for fourth-line wingers were heavyweight Ryan Reaves and shot-blocking specialist Tom Kuhnhackl, players with specific areas of expertise. His center choices were Carter Rowney and Greg McKegg, two more players best suited for limited roles.

Sullivan would have liked to roll four lines, but he thought doing so might be detrimental to the bottom line.

“Part of it was because we were trying to win games,” Sullivan said. “That’s what it boils down to. Each and every night, the points are so critically important with the parity in the league. As I’ve said to our guys last year and the year before, you can’t win the Stanley Cup in October and November, but you can lose it if you’re not careful.”

General manager Jim Rutherford saw the limited minutes the fourth line got early in the season. He also saw Sidney Crosby’s line score darn near all the team’s even-strength goals in the playoffs. In response, he made forward depth a priority in the offseason.

He signed Cullen and Derek Grant in free agency. The deal for Derick Brassard at the trade deadline last season already bumped Riley Sheahan into fourth-line territory. Add possible contributions from young players such as Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese, and the team’s fourth line looks much better positioned to make an impact this season.

“When you look at a lineup, the players we have on the bottom six are really capable players and have done a lot in the past,” Cullen said.

Playing four lines early can have a myriad of benefits as the season rolls on.

It can allow Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to stay fresher by avoiding heavy ice-time workloads in the first few months of the year. It can prepare young players for bigger roles once injuries hit and the roster evolves.

Sullivan is aware of those realities, too, of course, which might be the biggest reason to believe he means what he says about rolling four lines.

“We believe that we have capable guys that can play and help us win,” Sullivan said, “and we’re going to try our best to make the best decisions so that our team can stay competitive in both the short term and the long term.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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