Joe Vitale wasn't supposed to crack this lineup. In training camp, he established himself as a penalty kill specialist, dominated the faceoff circle and showed that he had the speed and work ethic to fit snugly into Dan Bylsma's very specific team DNA.
Pascal Dupuis wasn't supposed to earn two contract extensions following his acquisition as part of the Marian Hossa trade. Since then, he's proven himself to be an adept grinder, capable of keeping up with Sidney Crosby as a top-line winger and an asset on the power play and penalty kill alike.
Matt Cooke was supposed to be banned from hockey forever, if you listened to last season's popular punditry. Four games into a season many thought he shouldn't be a participant of, Cooke leads the team in goals, and has just two penalty minutes so far—for interference.
None of these guys were expected to excel. With no expectation of great success, they've gelled through two games, becoming perhaps the team's best line in the absence of Evgeni Malkin and Crosby.
Three grinders. Little fanfare. Each earning his way by hitting the ice, putting his head down and getting some.
The chemistry was on display Tuesday night, as the line combined for two goals, three assists and a combined plus-3 rating. Dupuis scored the opening goal of the match, Cooke the game-winner and Vitale assisted on each.
Decent work for a line that hadn't existed prior to Tuesday.
The line came together out of necessity. With Malkin in the lineup, Vitale was a fourth-line center. Letestu centered Cooke and Dupuis. Though Cooke had two goals against Vancouver, they came on the power play and penalty kill, respectively, and it was Dupuis who assisted on the man-advantage marker.
When Malkin went down, Letestu was forced to move up in the lineup, and Vitale earned shifts on the third unit, which he appeared to make the most of.
The line came about following injuries. Why, then, did they show such sudden chemistry in the Florida game?
As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Dejan Kovacevic points out, Bylsma's club is about the system, not the personnel. "Joe has to be my eyes there," Dupuis said. "If he doesn't yell, I just chip it down the boards."
As mentioned in the article, Vitale didn't need training camp to memorize the team's on-ice signals. The Penguins adhere to a structure throughout their entire system—that means the little plays practiced at the AHL level are the same ones practiced at the NHL level. "That helps so much," Vitale said. "When you come up to the NHL, you just play."
Cooke and Dupuis have each spent three full seasons with the club, and have played under Bylsma for his entire tenure as Penguins' Head Coach. Vitale is a Penguins draft pick, and has been a part of the system for his entire professional career.
It should be no surprise that all three are able to excel alongside one another.
And while the system is a big part of their games, it's not the biggest. Each displays fierce effort, relentlessly pursues pucks and puck carriers and forechecks and backchecks with equal ferocity.
These are the traits that make them some of the team's best penalty killers, but that effort translates to five-on-five play all the same.
In last year's playoffs, the Penguins got a boost out of a third line of so-called "energy players," including Dupuis and speedsters Max Talbot and Chris Conner.
That line has seemingly been upgraded, exchanging Cooke for Conner and Vitale for Talbot.
Matt Cooke has always had the hands and skating to play in the NHL without making boneheaded plays, and now that Brendan Shanahan is handing out suspensions like there's no tomorrow, Cooke has so far cleaned up his act. The results are promising: three goals on just seven registered shots, a plus-1 rating, and one minor penalty for interference.
Beyond the box score, Cooke has even reeled in his chatter. If he manages to relinquish the 'pest' tag for an entire season and instead focus on scoring (not to mention avoid the suspensions which held him out of last year's playoffs), the Penguins will have a legitimate offensive threat on its third line, when two seasons ago they signed and payed for a pest.
Vitale is still young in his NHL career, but has so far been a considerable upgrade over Max Talbot, who managed just five goals in 82 games last season. Vitale landed two assists Tuesday, and his feed to Cooke in the second period showed uncanny speed and a tape-to-tape, cross-crease pass that only Crosby or Malkin usually makes.
Vitale may not crack 10 goals this year, and the return of centers Crosby, Malkin and Dustin Jeffrey (in addition to having Jordan Staal, Letestu and Richard Park in the mix) makes his spot at center a very delicate one.
However, Vitale's most impressive stat comes regardless of his linemates. Through the first four games, he's posted faceoff win percentages of 57, 55, 67 and 69 percent, respectively. The numbers are even better in the defensive zone, where faceoff wins are a pivotal part of the Penguins' top-ranked penalty kill (100 percent success through four games).
As for Dupuis, Dan Bylsma could plug the veteran winger into any position in the lineup and he'd contribute. Perhaps even at goaltender. Dupuis has 119 points (50 goals, 69 assists) in three-plus seasons with the Penguins, far more value than the team may have expected when they traded for Marian Hossa during the stretch run of the 2008 season.
Constant roster turnover might dictate that these three don't spend much more time together, but through one game they've shown good hands, great skating and a mentality of constant attack.
With Dan Bylsma's Penguins, there's no better way to ensure success than that.
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