Heartbreak Kids: Castoffs, cubs are Cup Final difference makers
This story appears in the June 13, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
BEFORE THE triple-meat sandwich was unveiled and the professional wrestler entered the picture, the most productive line of the 2016 NHL playoffs was still looking to jell. On March 11, Evgeni Malkin suffered an upper-body injury, prompting Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to move center Nick Bonino between Malkin’s wingers, Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel. After they were held pointless in their first two games together, the trio gathered for a talk. The consensus they reached: They should use their speed to generate more offensive opportunities and not be afraid to take chances. Looking back now, Bonino believes this particularly applied to him. “The whole first half of the year I was in more of a defensive role,” he says. “When I [joined that line], I was afraid to make plays. [But] I figured, Why not now? Either I’m going to have nothing all year, or I can try to play with these guys.”
Guess which way the pendulum swung. In the first game after the group chat, on March 17, Bonino and Kessel each scored against Carolina, while Hagelin notched three assists. The trio had clicked so well that even when Malkin returned in the playoffs, Sullivan kept them together. Proving nightmarish matchups for the Rangers, Washington and Tampa Bay, they hammered opponents that underestimated them and dedicated top defensive pairs to stopping lines steered by Malkin or Sidney Crosby instead. And by week’s end, with Pittsburgh leading San Jose 2–1 in the Stanley Cup Final, no line had scored more five-on-five goals in the playoffs than their 13.
Along the way Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel became known as the HBK Line, their sequential initials paying homage to WWE Hall of Famer Shawn (the Heartbreak Kid) Michaels, who admittedly wasn’t much of a hockey fan until he attended Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Lightning at Consol Energy Center, decked in black and gold. At local sandwich mecca Primanti Bros., across town, customers can now attack a coronary-inducing concoction, piled high with HBK—ham, bacon and kielbasa. “We love it,” Penguins assistant GM Bill Guerin says of the ancillary attention. “We think it’s a riot.”
The most noteworthy aspects of the line’s success, though, can be found in the common paths taken by H, B and K. Each arrived in Pittsburgh by trade over the past 11 months, jettisoned from other teams for various reasons, and their styles have meshed perfectly. After leaving Toronto, where local papers celebrated his July departure after six seasons, Kessel seems rejuvenated playing in the shadow of Crosby and Malkin, leading Pittsburgh with 10 playoff goals. Bonino, the cerebral pivot who honed his slick hands by stickhandling a golf ball around the house as a kid, was traded by Vancouver on July 28 and now has a team-high 13 postseason assists. Finally the swift-skating Hagelin came aboard from Anaheim on Jan. 16, adding a ferocious forecheck.
“For the coaches that’s their home run play, when they find lines that just click right off the bat,” Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon says. “It doesn’t happen every time, but they’ve found chemistry, and it’s been working.”
Sure, the HBK Line has commanded the viral headlines this postseason. (See: the shrieking goal call from Hockey Night in Punjabi of Bonino’s Game 1 winner against San Jose; and Kessel’s mistakenly thinking NBC’s Pierre McGuire was pointing out his bad breath after a Game 3 win over Tampa Bay.) But they are far from the only improbable heroes emerging in a finals headlined by big names like Malkin and Crosby, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. “You need contributions from every single player,” Hagelin says. “It’s a thin line between your superstar and just a good player in the league. Before, if you looked at the superstars compared to the fourth-liners, it was a big gap. Now it’s not like that.”
WHEN SHARKS winger Joonas Donskoi wheeled around the net and roofed a puck past goaltender Matt Murray at 12:18 of overtime in Game 3 last Saturday night, he delivered the franchise’s first finals victory in its first finals home game. This time last year Donskoi was living in Finland, staying up late to catch the finals on TV. Now suddenly he was at the center of it all, the toast of an NHL town. Almost immediately his phone began jangling with texts from those back home. “It’s 3 a.m., and they wake up to watch [the game],” he said. “It’s fun to see.”
The Panthers drafted Donskoi in 2010, but an underwhelming contract offer led him to remain in Finland and become an NHL free agent. After that “it was crickets interest for three years,” his agent, Scott Bartlett, says, until a standout performance at the ’15 world championships turned heads. At least six NHL clubs asked about signing the speedy winger, Bartlett says, but Donskoi chose the Sharks largely because they showed interest first. For the team the low-risk (two-year, $1.85 million) acquisition of the winger, introduced to teammates by way of Internet search, paid off handsomely. After scoring 36 points during the regular season, he netted the series-clinching goal against Los Angeles in the first round.
"WHENEVER YOU GET THIS DEEP," TIERNEY SAYS, "SOMEONE'S GOING TO STEP UP AT SOME POINT."
“It’s like a Christmas gift,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said earlier in the playoffs. He was referencing Donskoi’s top six emergence, which has given the coach greater lineup flexibility, allowing him to shuffle around veterans Patrick Marleau and Joel Ward at will. In this way the 24-year-old Donskoi resembles Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, fellow rookies who now flank Crosby and Malkin, respectively, on Pittsburgh’s top six. Sullivan still wields the threat of deploying Crosby and Malkin together, as he did at times in Game 3, but the Penguins have been most successful with their stars separated and relative unknowns filling vital roles. Until Sheary and Donskoi managed the feat three days apart, no rookie had scored an overtime winner in the Cup finals for 30 years. “The battle of the depth guys,” Sharks center Chris Tierney says. “Whenever you get this deep in the playoffs, someone’s going to step up at some point.”
An undrafted UMass-Amherst graduate listed at 5' 8" and 175 pounds, Sheary wouldn’t look particularly out of place interning at Google, which he and several other Penguins toured during a recent off day in Silicon Valley. Neither, for that matter, would Rust, whose two goals dispatched Tampa Bay in Game 7, or Murray, the 22-year-old backup goalie who’s retained the starting job with a .924 save percentage despite the availability of season starter and 2009 Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury. Yet there was Sheary in overtime of Game 2, looping into the slot after Crosby won an offensive-zone face-off, rising onto one skate and whipping the puck past Sharks goalie Martin Jones.
So what to make of the castoffs and the kids? More than ever, the old way of pigeonholing forwards into top six/-bottom six roles has faded away, replaced by an emphasis on blanket offensive balance. “You have to have scoring depth,” Guerin says. Even if it comes from surprising sources. But like any overindulgent sandwich, sometimes mixing unexpected ingredients makes for a heart-stopping product.