Pittsburgh Penguins forward Scott Wilson drove to the net and deflected a slick pass from Evgeni Malkin, but was denied by red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Moments later, Wilson got another chance. This time, Wilson’s shot hit the back of the net, the goal light flashed and fans celebrated. Wilson, 24, added two assists in the Penguins sloppy 5-3 loss the Blue Jackets, Saturday afternoon at PPG Paints Arena.
Taking advantage of a second chance is symbolic of Wilson’s training camp performance.
While there was much wrong with the Penguins team game Saturday, there was little wrong with Wilson’s game. Wilson chased a loose puck at center ice then quickly sprung Kris Letang on a breakaway for his first assist. Later, Wilson covered the point for a pinching Brian Dumoulin and sent a well-placed shot for Malkin to deflect for his second assist.
“Coach (Sullivan) told me to play north-south tonight, especially with a guy like (Malkin). As soon as he got the puck, I tried to head to the net and be ready because he can sneak anything through that defenseman,” said Wilson. “I think I’m pretty close (to regaining form). I still have a little bit of rust. I think just getting back to where I was before the injury, I’ve done that,” said Wilson.
Head coach Mike Sullivan and Wilson were both on the same page. Both continually used the term “North-South’ to describe Wilson’s game, Saturday.
Wilson, who played three collegiate seasons at UMass-Lowel then three professional seasons with the WBS Penguins looks like a player making up for lost time. Last season, an injury in March ended Wilson’s NHL campaign after just 24 games. While fellow WBS Penguins alumni Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust played important roles in the Penguins Stanley Cup run, Wilson was relegated to spectator.
Entering this season, for many Wilson was an afterthought. However, since the first drills in the first minutes of training camp, Wilson skated hard. While others eased into training camp, Wilson had jump. (You can read our coverage of Day 1 of Penguins training camp here). Wilson applied the same effort and intensity to the camp intra-squad scrimmages.
Coming into camp, Wilson was expected to battle Rust for the right side on Malkin’s line. Rust’s lingering undisclosed injury opened an opportunity which Wilson has seized.
Like Rust, Wilson has aggressive speed, which lends itself to Sullivan’s forechecking system, is able to push defensemen deeper into the offensive zone and create space for Malkin. Wilson brings more playmaking ability than Rust, which should improve Malkin’s goal total and lessen burdens on LW Chris Kunitz.
Wilson’s size and ability to survive the rigors of the NHL has been a question mark. At 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, Wilson has only adequate size. However, Wilson has been strong on the puck and grit in the corners.
“When he’s at his best, he’s a North-South guy. He on the puck. He’s physical when he has an opportunity. Hard in the corners and he goes to the net,” said Sullivan.
Wilson has a more complete game than Rust and this preseason Wilson has shown more finishing ability.
Wilson could be a menace to opponents. If he is able to stay healthy, it is easy to predict a high offensive output. Like 25 goals high. If Blake Comeau was able to score 16 goals in 61 games, many playing with Malkin in 2014-15, Wilson has clear 20 goal potential. His energy and tempo have stood above others in the preseason.
Wilson’s emergence pushes Rust to the 13th forward role behind fourth liners Eric Fehr and Tom Kuhnhackl. Wilson could also see time on the second power-play unit.
Last season, the youth infusion added to the intangibles which made the Penguins greater than the sum of their parts. With most of the Stanley Cup roster intact for the title defense, Wilson will also add new energy and hunger.
Once again, injury has provided an opportunity for a young Penguins player. This time, Wilson is the recipient, not the giver. Do not be surprised if Wilson does not give back.