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Tim Benz: Penguins’ Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan must pay dividends now

April 26, 2018 GMT

This is why it’s good he is here.

More than solid two-way play. Or good playoff production. Or forcing tough matchup problems for the opposing team’s defensive depth.

This is why you should’ve been celebrating like crazy when the Penguins got Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators before the trade deadline.

Not fretting because Ian Cole went to Columbus or because your Ryan Reaves jersey suddenly was out of fashion.

As you read here after the deal was consummated, the greatest benefit of acquiring Brassard was the Penguins now had a capable offensive center to cushion the blow if Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin got hurt.

Well, now Malkin is hurt.

How badly? We don’t know. Mike Sullivan is giving the usual “day-to-day with a lower-body injury” description.

But to hear Brassard talk, he’s speaking as a player who is preparing for a long haul up the depth chart.

“It’s not what we wanted, losing one of those two guys,” Brassard said. “Losing a guy that scored almost 100 points and 40 goals, you can’t replace that. We are all going to have to step up and play some big minutes and play different roles.”

If that sounds foreboding, I’ll balance it out with the news that Malkin was around the practice facility without a boot, crutches or an overwhelming limp.

More good news is Brassard seems to have clicked on a line with Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary. At times during the latter stages of the first-round victory over the Flyers, Sullivan referred to that line as the best on his team.

“We’re going to try to be difference-makers in the next series.” Brassard said. “We’ve had some really good looks and really good scoring chances.”

While struggling a bit in Game 6, that line excelled in Game 5. It accounted for one of the Penguins’ two goals when Sheary and Brassard set up Rust. Brassard ended up with eight shots on goal and won 9 of 12 faceoffs.

“We’ve really liked that line since we put it together,” Sullivan said. “They’ve had a lot of scoring chances five-on-five.”

There’s an added benefit of that line coalescing. It allows Riley Sheahan to bump up to play in Malkin’s spot with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin.

Sheahan centering a line with Kessel is something that seemed to work nicely before Brassard was acquired. During Game 6 in Philadelphia, that line connected for a goal before Claude Giroux knocked out Hagelin.

Elevating a fourth-line center to that capacity might seem extreme. But the Penguins always have viewed Sheahan’s skill set to be higher than his standing on the depth chart. So much so that if they didn’t execute the Brassard deal, they might have been content to keep Sheahan as their third-line center given the way he was performing leading up to the trade deadline.

“I just try to make space for them. Use my body. Get to the net,” said the 6-foot-3, 222-pound Sheahan. “Just be ready to make some plays because they (Hagelin and Kessel) are offensive-minded guys. So you just try to get open for them and create opportunities.”

In 73 regular-season games with the Penguins, Sheahan scored 11 times and totaled 32 points. He had just two goals and 13 points in Detroit last season over 80 games. He had a goal and two assists in the Flyers series.

″(Promoting Sheahan) was an obvious option for us when we didn’t have (Malkin) in Game 6,” explained Sullivan. “Riley brings a 200-foot game. He gets in on pucks. That helps a guy like Phil (Kessel).

“We didn’t want to change (Brassard’s) line if we didn’t have to. So for those reasons we opted to put Riley with Phil and keep Brassard’s line together, and we’ve liked what we’ve seen from both.”

It always has been my contention that the best part about acquiring Brassard would be something we all hoped we wouldn’t have to see. That’s him being a human insurance policy in case of injury to Malkin or Crosby.

At least for the short term, that policy might pay off.

The additional coverage from Sheahan will help, too.

Malkin might not miss a game against Washington. If he misses the whole series, frankly, the Penguins probably will lose.

But Brassard and Sheahan are good enough — and are now fitting in well enough — that the Penguins should be able to stay afloat through at least the first four games if Malkin is sidelined that long.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.