The Pittsburgh Penguins fourth line was uncharacteristically strong Wednesday against the Washington Capitals. Newly recalled Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson flanked center Matt Cullen. Aston-Reese had a couple of golden scoring chances. He barged around defensemen to the net. He fought on the walls and he spent nearly 90 seconds on the penalty kill, including when the Penguins killed Evgeni Malkin’s third period five-minute major.
The Penguins had a competent fourth line for the first time this season and they also dominated puck possession. That’s not a coincidence.
Also newly recalled Wilson had a mini-breakaway chance later in the third period which could have won the game which the Capitals eventually won in the waning moments.
Wilson had two shots, three hits and no turnovers (or big mistakes). Aston-Reese was only credited with one shot, two hits, and one takeaway. But both were at all points noticeable, even in less than nine minutes of ice time.
“I thought they played a real good game,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “They made an impact. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
That’s what the Penguins have desperately been searching for and desperately needed The fourth line to carry the play or at least create some offensive zone time to propel the top lines.
The fourth line had Corsi scores ranging from 58 to 62 percent and was even in scoring chances. Such success has been rare this season.
In short, there just isn’t a reason to reinsert struggling 21-year-old winger Daniel Sprong back into the lineup. The Penguins have done all they can for Sprong. Additional work, resources, film, and encouragement have yielded marginal results. It just hasn’t been enough from Sprong or fast enough for the Penguins to stick with it any longer.
Aston-Reese is a far better option on the fourth line right wing. His work on the penalty kill should not be overlooked. It’s not glamorous or sexy, but its the kind of hard work which wins hockey games.
As usual, Sullivan found the right word to accurately describe the situation. From Garrett Wilson’s big hit on the Washington puck carrier at center ice which sprung Aston-Reese into the offensive zone to Aston-Reese storming around a couple of Washington defenders for a high-danger chance. The Penguins fourth line and the team as a whole got contributions it hasn’t all season.
It was night and day difference. There would be no coddling of Aston-Reese or looking for singular positives to praise. Aston-Reese played a solid game in all three zones.
Life isn’t always fair. Sprong should have two more years of team control and waiver eligibility. He should have the entry-level contract slide but the Penguins, specifically Jim Rutherford was enamored with his offensive potential and kept him past his nine-game tryout thus burning a year of eligibility and starting his ELC clock.
Unfortunately for Sprong, that clock may have just struck midnight.
Sprong signed a two-year, $1.5 million deal this summer but the Penguins have choices including trading the struggling winger or sending him through waivers to WBS Penguins, so the Penguins salary cap would not suffer a hit. Perhaps Sprong would slip through. Perhaps not.
But the comparison between Sprong and Aston-Reese, an improvement on the Penguins fourth line was too obvious to ignore. It’s time for the Penguins and Sprong to make a change.