You may not think they’re cute or know they’re sexy, and with those playoff beards, they probably don’t have the looks that drive the girls wild right about now.
But in the marquee series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, one where the stars were expected to shine the brightest, the group that sent chills up and down the spines of the crowd was the Penguins’ trio of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel — otherwise known as the “HBK” line.
Those three men were big enough show-stoppers to make even the first man to own the “HBK” moniker — WWE wrestling Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels — stand and applaud. But the praise they received from their head coach was much simpler, yet based on high merit.
“That line as a whole is a really good line,” Mike Sullivan said in his post-game press conference. “I think they present a good matchup challenge when that type of situation presents itself. I can’t say enough about that line.”
The challenge provided by the Penguins’ third line was one the Capitals failed to answer, surrendering a combined total of seven goals and 11 assists. Each of them tallied at least one goal in the series finale (Kessel scored the first two of the game), and Bonino’s game-winner at 6:32 of the overtime period helped the team advance to their fourth Eastern Conference Final in the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era.
“We had a good start to the series and we were quiet the last couple games,” Bonino said. “We wanted to come out tonight and play hard. Phil plays well in big games, and the same with Haggy. To be able to get some goals from us, we’re happy with that and to ultimately get the win.”
Kessel aside, Bonino and Hagelin aren’t well-known for their scoring ability. But each of the three brings a specific skill set that complements the others and helps them make a significant impact at both ends of the ice.
“Haggy brings so much speed,” Sullivan said. “Phil is such a threat to score from anywhere on the rink. Bones is the guy that I think is the glue guy on that line with how he reads plays and makes plays offensively, but also provides a defensive conscience to that line because he’s so sound in his own end zone.”
The construction of this line is significant for two reasons: all three players were acquired in trades made by general manager Jim Rutherford, and they are emblematic of the entire roster’s makeup.
“It shows the depth of our team,” Bonino said. “We’ve had it all year. Not as even scoring with Sid and Geno, but the line was chipping in at the right time, and that’s the playoffs.
“We’re playing a team next that is going to have a lot of depth scoring. We’ve got to be able to match that.”
That team is the Tampa Bay Lightning, appearing in the conference final for the second straight year and built in the same fashion as the Pens the previous postseason. And the Penguins aren’t taking them lightly, despite knocking off the East’s top seed and the President’s Trophy winner in Washington.
“If you play this late in the year, you’re going to have adversity and you have to overcome it,” Bonino said. “We play Tampa next, and they’ve done the same thing. They’re playing without two or three of their best players, and it’s going to be a good series.”
It won’t be an easy series to win, but whether not the Penguins advance to their fourth Stanley Cup Final in franchise history could depend on just how well their show-stoppers continue to play.