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Finally: Nylander Kept it Simple, Impresses Penguins in Debut



Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Nylander

It’s been a long wait for another shot at the NHL for Pittsburgh Penguins farmhand Alex Nylander. The 2016 eighth-overall pick by the Buffalo Sabres has bounced around a few organizations and been primarily confined to the AHL during his six-year career. He last appeared in the big show with the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2019-20 season and had played just 84 NHL games before Tuesday.

He contributed to the Penguins’ five-goal comeback to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 5-4 in OT at PPG Paints Arena.

It’s been a long road back, though a temporary one for Nylander, who was an emergency recall on Tuesday because Mikael Granlund is sick and Bryan Rust welcomed a new child into the world. Due to salary cap constraints, Nylander will have to return to the AHL when Bryan Rust or Granlund return, at least for a couple of days.

A Penguins source said four days, but reported two days. Both estimates were unofficial. For Nylander, it was simple hockey. The kind of game he hasn’t been known for. He stayed high in the offensive zone when it was his responsibility. In the first period, he cycled low with his linemates Jeff Carter and Drew O’Connor. He got to the net. He backchecked Patrick Laine after the Columbus winger zipped past defenseman Jeff Petry, preventing another glorious Columbus scoring chance.

“I just tried not to do too much in my first game. Tried to keep it simple. Move my feet and make some plays,” Nylander responded to PHN. “Tried to keep it simple and work hard out there.”

Last weekend, this reporter challenged fans who had only seen the box scores to explain why Nylander deserved a call-up. Tuesday night, Nylander provided the answers: two shots, two more attempts, three hits, and one assist.

It was a nice cap to a pretty good day.

“I found out when I went to (WBS Penguins) practice — after our team meeting (I found out). I was really happy. Really excited. We didn’t know for sure if I would be called up,” Nylander said. “I was so excited when they said I was coming. I just went in the car. Five hours. And got ready for the game.”

By the middle of the second period, coach Mike Sullivan bestowed the best compliment he could upon Nylander. He moved him into the Penguins’ top six. Nylander skated with Evgeni Malkin and Jason Zucker for the second half of the game.

Nylander played just short of 15 minutes and looked like the type of player many scouts, coaches, and past organizations wanted to see. He played in the middle of the ice. He was defensively responsible, including a couple of strong backchecks that bailed out his defensemen, he played with the puck down low, and he found open ice in the dirty areas.

“I thought he played a solid game,” Sullivan said. “One of the reasons we called him up is we liked what we saw, and we thought we’d give him a shot with Geno’s line. I thought he played really well.”

When healthy, the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup is full. Granlund, Rust, and Ryan Poehling will occupy the open spots. After another goal on Tuesday, Danton Heinen has seven points in his last nine games.

There may not be room for a call-up, but at least for one night, Nylander grabbed his opportunity.

It was just one game, and conclusions are far from certain or written in ink, but for a player terminally stuck in the AHL purgatory, it felt good to get back to the show.

“I’ve been playing really well. Obviously, I’ve had a great year (in WBS). (I’ve been) working hard every day, trying to play my game,” Nylander said. “I just knew my time would come. I wasn’t really stressing about it. I knew if I kept playing like this, eventually, it would come.”

His offensive talent was never questioned, though his ability to translate into the tougher, faster NHL game may have been. So, too, was his overall game a problem that kept him in the AHL.

“He’s come a long way. I had a great conversation with J.D. (Forrest) this morning — the Wilkes-Barre coach — they’ve done a really good job working with Alex. And Alex deserves a lot of credit for the growth and development in his game … I think he’s starting to round out his game on both sides of the puck. I thought he played a solid game for us tonight.”

PHN hung back to have a quick word with the player fans have been clamoring for. He woke up in Wilkes-Barre and finished the day playing with Malkin in the greatest Penguins comeback since 2006. It was quite a day, huh?

Nylander just smiled.

He earned that one.

Alex Nylander in the Penguins locker room: