During the second round of the playoffs, the “Bonino Line” combined for one goal in each of the first three games against the Capitals, and provided an advantage for the Penguins throughout the playoffs. Entering the 2016-2017 season, the Capitals knew certain improvements were necessary. Have the Capitals made sufficient adjustments during the offseason to matchup, neutralize and even best the Bonino line?
The top six forwards for the Penguins and the Capitals would make any all-star team, as many of the names are certainly headed for the Hall of Fame. However, the difference last year could easily be associated with the play of the Penguins bottom six.
THE “BONINO” LINE
Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel proved to be a difference for Pittsburgh towards the end of last season, and a big reason why the Penguins hoisted the cup. The “HBK” line was stellar during the Penguins post season run.
The speed and chemistry of the line was arguably the Penguins greatest asset during their second round series versus the Capitals. Evgeni Malkin had just one goal and an assist. Sidney Crosby chipped in a pair of assists. That’s it.
“The Hagelin line, Bonino line, they seemed to be the group that scored all the time,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “And really ended up being the difference.”
Hagelin was the Penguins’ leading scorer against Washington, with three goals and four assists.
Kessel, who had two goals in Game 6, finished with two goals and four assists, while Bonino had two goals and three assists.
The real benefit to the Penguins, was the ability to move Phil Kessel away from the top lines centered by Crosby and Malkin. Pittsburgh tried Kessel on the top two lines early last season, but the chemistry never seemed to materialize.
It was clear that Capitals management knew there needed to be improvements to the bottom six, most notably the third line, in order to matchup better against the bottom six of the Penguins. Enter Lars Eller and Zach Sanford.
THE CAPITALS RE-LOAD
The need for a true third-line center was mentioned numerous times during offseason pressers and media sessions. Lars Eller will be asked to pilot the third line this season, and as a byproduct, solidify the bottom six and enhance bottom six production.
Zach Sanford, a surprise to many, will be utilized initially to add speed, size and tenacity to the third line – essentially a “Hagelin-type” for the Caps. It’s been fairly clear since mid July, the Capitals had a plan for Sanford. As the last two months have unfolded, it looks like he will initially be a third line mate with Eller. It remains to be seen if 21-year-old Sanford will be able to handle this role, but early indications are quite encouraging.
The pieces are in place for the Capitals. Now we play the games. It will be fascinating to watch the chess match that takes place when the Capitals and Penguins matchup this season, particularly the bottom six matchups, and how head coach Barry Trotz counters the Bonino line.
By Jon Sorensen