Pittsburgh Penguins winger Daniel Sprong finally saw third period ice time last Saturday in Vancouver. After a couple weeks of a shortened bench in which Sprong and others were relegated to spectators during crucial times, the Penguins coaches tapped Sprong for a few shifts. Sprong and his fellow fourth liners responded.
Saturday morning, Sprong spoke with Pittsburgh Hockey Now. It was a different type of chat than the previous scrums and one-on-one talks. Until recently, Sprong seemed a little like a child proclaiming to his parents that he was ready to stay home alone but had been rebuffed. He offered self-affirmation even as coaches, and some teammates took a different tone.
Saturday, he was different.
The 21-year-old Sprong already in his fourth professional season has struggled to find his footing this season. While he has four points (0g, 4a) in 10 games, that first goal has been elusive. He nearly had it in Vancouver, in the third period.
“In Vancouver, I had the one good (shift in the third period) with G,” Sprong said. G is for Geno. Evgeni Malkin. “Our line has been playing well defensively, and that’s led to offensive chances,” Sprong concluded.
There was a mix of defiance and optimism with Sprong.
“I’m not going to shoot it just to get a shot,” he later said as he expressed confidence. “One will find the back of the net.”
Sprong was paired with center Derek Grant in the Vancouver game. After a pair of third period shifts in which Sprong showed an aggressive forecheck, he got the call to skate with Malkin for a shift. The Malkin goal from a nifty Sprong feed broke open the game.
Sprong’s moment in Vancouver came one game after getting a seat in the press box for the Penguins 9-1 win over the Calgary Flames. It was the first time this season Sprong was a healthy scratch.
“When I was scratched, it was a big wakeup call,” he said.
Sprong as been a different player since that humbling moment. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the trajectory of a player with as much skill as Sprong who struggles with several facets of the NHL game won’t change in one night but it was a start. Both of the moments were starters; the scratch and the Malkin assist.
“The first nine or 10 games were an adjustment,” Sprong said. “I’m finding myself.”
Sprong and PHN talked more about his game. He clearly is doing his homework and listening intently to coaches. He even sounded like them in a few moments. Sprong conceded as he plays better, the shots quality will improve. As he works harder in the defensive zone, offensive chances will increase.
For the first time, Sprong didn’t sound like a talented juniors player confounded why he wasn’t scoring or getting ice time. He sounded like a young, hungry player eager to play real hockey.
We ended on a softball question. Surely, it’s much more fun to feel momentum and be contributing?
“For sure,” he smiled before settling into a stock answer about playing hard and goals will come.
It seems Sprong is indeed on his way to finding himself. It may not be the sniper he was for Charlottetown in the QMJHL or even the prolific scorer he became in the AHL, but he has the physical tools to be an NHL player in all three zones.
And that would be a good find.