Blake Comeau adding grit, depth to Penguins

Pretty much anytime you get moved up to play on a line with Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby -- or both -- you can take comfort in knowing you must be doing something right.

And that was the case Thursday night for fourth-line winger Blake Comeau, whose rugged, hard-nosed play was one of the few highlights in the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2-1 loss in Game 1 of their first-round series against the New York Rangers.

Comeau showed enough to Pens coach Mike Johnston that he earned a few extra turns with the big guns, as the team recovered from a sloppy start and went on to push the Presidents' Trophy winning Rangers in the latter half of the game.

“[Comeau] I bumped up later in the game because he was skating well, hanging onto the puck, seemed to be getting a few scoring chances and so Comes is a guy we can move in our lineup like we have during the year,” Johnston said during Friday’s media availability. “He can play up, he can play the middle. He’s an energy guy. And he’s most effective when he uses his speed and shot.”

Comeau employed both in getting the Penguins on the board Thursday night in the series-opener, tallying his first career playoff goal at 6:15 of the second period to cut New York's lead in half. It was after an impressive shift from Comeau and the Pens’ fourth line, which created havoc around Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s crease.

Earlier in the sequence, Comeau spun from the high slot and fired a shot at Lundqvist, retrieved his own rebound, chipped the puck to teammate Nick Spaling and crashed the net to bury the goal while Maxim Lapierre was tangling with Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle in front of Lundqvist.

“I think it’s a great effort from Comeau and Spaling being on the puck, shooting from everywhere, having traffic in front,” Lapierre said after the game. “I was just there enjoying what they’ve done.”

Comeau, who had 16 goals and 31 points in 65 games for the Penguins during the regular season, said that was a function of what Johnston has emphasized during the playoffs.

This is not the time to be picky about shot selection. No shot is a bad shot. Bad angles, good angles, everything has a chance of going in, and so that’s something the Pens’ fourth line has tried to take to heart.

All three players play a straightforward, physical game. They aren’t afraid to go to the net or to mix things up. Thursday night, they were able to chip pucks behind the Rangers defensemen, attack on the forecheck and force turnovers.

And they ultimately got rewarded for these efforts.

“When you look around the league at the goals scored, I think a lot of them are scored around the crease,” Comeau said. “I feel like playoff hockey is pretty tight-checking. There’s not a lot of room throughout the neutral zone or odd-man rushes given up. Those are the places you’re going to have to score goals from.”

Comeau’s sandpaper style of play is well-suited for this time of year, and that’s part of the reason the 29-year-old has remained in the league for eight seasons despite bouncing around on several different teams.

“Hard, tough, two-way player,” said one Western Conference scout about Comeau’s play. “I’d take him on [my team].”

Originally a second-round draft choice of the New York Islanders (47th overall in 2004), Comeau was waived by the Isles in 2011-12 just one season after setting career highs with 24 goals and 46 points. He was picked up by the Calgary Flames, where he played until he was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets before the 2013 trade deadline. Columbus, with its blue-collar ethos and hard-working identity seemed to be a good fit for Comeau, though his productivity waned.

Now, since signing a one-year deal with the Pens as a free agent, Comeau seems to have carved out a nice role for himself on a roster that entered this season needing some depth up front.

“I play a physical, gritty style. I like to get in on the fore-check, create some room for my linemates. I feel like I’m comfortable playing on both wings on any line, so wherever I’m asked to play, I’m ready to play,” Comeau said.

That depth becomes even more vital in the postseason, especially when teams are game-planning against Crosby and Malkin, both of whom were held off the score sheet in Game 1.

Comeau, who faced the Penguins in the playoffs last season while playing with Columbus, knows players like Crosby and Malkin usually don’t remain quiet for long, though. He learned that the hard way. Malkin had zero goals through the first five games of that series last season, then delivered a hat trick in Game 6 to help the Pens clinch the series and bounce the Blue Jackets.

“It’s a tough league to score in,” Comeau said, “but guys with that type of talent, you can only contain them for so long.”