The Pittsburgh Penguins are currently in the middle of trying to do something that hasn’t been done since the early 1980's, winning the Stanley Cup in three consecutive years.
They took a huge step in the right direction, taking over the Metropolitan Division after defeating the rival Columbus Blue Jackets 4-2 Sunday afternoon.
The win continues the Penguins' hot streak, who has been one of the best teams in the league since the calendar turned over to 2018. Pittsburgh has won eight of their last 10 games, and since we hit 2018, have won 16-of-21.
It’s been the usual faces leading the way for Pittsburgh, with Evgeni Malkin (2nd), Phil Kessel (8th), and Sidney Crosby (9th) all in the top 10 in scoring this season. After a rough start to the season, Matt Murray has returned to form, looking like the goalie that has backstopped the last two Stanley Cup winners.
In each season the Penguins have won the Cup, they have received help from the team’s farm system in Wilkes-Barre Scranton. Two years ago, when Mike Sullivan was brought in to replace Mike Johnston, he brought with him Murray, Conor Sheary, and Bryan Rust, among others. That shot of youth helped the Penguins capture the Stanley Cup.
A year later, Jake Guentzel scored 33 points (16 G, 17 A) in 40 games after being recalled by Wilkes-Barre during the regular season, then scored another 13 in the postseason. He ended up in the short conversation of possible winners of the Conn Smythe, given to the playoff MVP.
This season has been no different. Tristan Jarry has come up and played solid hockey when needed, now taking over the backup role behind Murray for now. Even undrafted Casey DeSmith has been solid when called upon.
The rookie though that may take on the biggest role down the road is undrafted college signee, Zach Aston-Reese.
Decorated college career
During his senior year at Northeastern, Aston-Reese led the nation in goals (31) and finished in a tie for the lead in points (63). He wound up a Hobey Baker finalist, with Denver's Will Butcher eventually take home the award.
Aston-Reese registered 66 goals during his college career and scored over 100 points his final two seasons in school.
The Hobey Baker Award runner-up from a year ago is in the midst of his first professional season, and while he has had his ups and downs while in Wilkes-Barre, Aston-Reese has been nothing short of remarkable since hitting the Penguins' lineup.
The timing couldn’t have been better as Patric Hornqvist, the team’s best front-of-the-net presence has been out with an injury, and watching Aston-Reese for just a few shifts you will see the same skill sets.
Aston-Reese recognizes this but still isn’t ready to put himself in the same conversation as Hornqvist, even if their games match up.
“What he does is hard to replicate,” Aston-Reese said in a Penguins.com article. “But I like the way he plays. He plays a hard-nosed game and I try to do my best to replicate that.”
While maybe he isn't quite there yet, this goal against the Blue Jackets would certainly make Hornqvist proud, as Aston-Reese first screens Sergei Bobrovsky before corralling Matt Hunwick’s rebound and extending the Penguins lead to 3-1. The Penguins would, of course, go on to win the game 4-2 with this winding up as the game-winner.
Or maybe even better, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, after finding a rebound off an Ian Cole shot, Aston-Reese is able to collect the puck and go from forehand to backhand and lift the puck over Frederik Andersen, all in tight space.
Not the easiest of things to do, but Aston-Reese looked quite acclimated to doing so. Working in such tight space is a skill that takes time to perfect, as getting the puck where you want it on your stick before the goalie adjusts, or the defense gets there takes plenty of practice.
The former Northeastern standout registered a lone assist in his first four career NHL games but since then, has scored in three of the next four contests, including a multi-goal game against the Ottawa Senators.
Making a living in front of the net isn’t the easiest job to do, it’s more along the lines of ‘but somebody has to do it’ territory, so it’s obviously nice to be rewarded like Aston-Reese has been, but his impact goes beyond his own stat sheet.
Although originally credited with it (it was later changed to Kris Letang), Aston-Reese sets a perfect screen in front of the net to where Jonathan Quick had no opportunity to prepare himself for the shot. The goal itself gave the Penguins the lead, and wound up being the game-winner.
It will be interesting what kind of opportunities that Aston-Reese gets once Hornqvist, and even Tom Kuhnhackl, return to the lineup. The opportunities to continue to slam home rebounds should remain high, as both Letang and Olli Maatta are among the best at creating rebound chances.
Among defensemen who have at least 800 minutes of 5v5 play, Maatta ranks second (1.1) and Letang sixth (1) in rebounds-created per 60 minutes, meaning when those two are on the ice, ZAR will have plenty of chances to pad the stat sheet.
Aston-Reese’s grinding and front-net presence is something that has certainly meshed well with Crosby, and a ZAR-Sid-Hornqvist line could spell nightmares for goaltenders and defenders come playoff time.
Kuhnhackl is one of the team’s better penalty killers, but he could be pushed aside in favor of Aston-Reese, who has seen time on both special team units.
The Penguins have done a brilliant job finding, drafting/signing, and then developing young talent in more recent years. If you look at the difference between the last few seasons, compared to the time in between Stanley Cup victories, you will notice that as the difference.
Aston-Reese is the most recent of the bunch to come through, and while he may not have been the most heralded, his style of play not only fits come playoff time, but also with the face of the franchise.
He may not be Hornqvist right now, but if there is any reason to be excited by such a small sample size, Aston-Reese’s short time in the NHL may be one of them.
What have you thought about Aston-Reese’s play of late? How about the Penguins' ability to find college players to fit their system? Let us know in the comment sections below.