CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The video room was a little crowded Thursday morning before the Penguins practiced at the UMPC Lemieux Sports Complex.
A dozen of the players’ fathers sat in as the team watched video of the team’s upcoming opponent. Coach Mike Sullivan seemed to enjoy the extra company as much the guests did for having the opportunity to do some advance scouting.
“I’m sure there was a lot of coaching going on behind the scenes,” Sullivan said with a smile.
The fathers accompanied their sons on the team’s charter flight to Dallas later in the day and more will join the traveling party Friday night before the Penguins play the Stars. The dads will continue on for the final leg of the two-city trip in St. Louis, where the Pens will face off against the Blues on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s always one of the highlights of the season,” Sidney Crosby said. “You don’t get to see your family much during the season, so it’s nice to be able to share that time with your dad — to ride the bus, go to the hotel, go to dinner. It’s nice to meet everyone else’s dad, too. It’s always a special time.”
It will be extra special for rookie Zach Aston-Reese, who made his NHL debut last Saturday night in a loss to the New Jersey Devils after being called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.
Though Aston-Reese is a native New Yorker, from Staten Island, his father is a Pittsburgher. William Aston-Reese Jr. grew up in Crafton and was a big Penguins’ fan before moving to the Big Apple, where he and wife Carolyn raised their four children.
William Aston-Reese was unable to attend practice because of work reasons. However, he plans to arrive in Dallas in time for the game then join the traveling party onward to St. Louis.
“He’s really excited,” Zach Aston-Reese said with a smile. “He loves the Penguins. This will be an incredible experience for him.”
It will also be an incredible experience for the son. Aston-Reese, the youngest in his family, appreciates the support and encouragement he has received from his father since the time he began playing hockey as a 5-year-old in the Staten Island Sharks organization.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” Aston-Reese said. “He’s the one who put everything into it for me, the time and the money that helped me get here. Obviously, it’s incredible for him see me play in the NHL, especially with the Penguins, of all teams.”
ZAR Gaining Confidence
The Penguins signed Aston-Reese as a college free agent last year following a stellar four-year career at Northeastern. He led the nation with 31 goals last season and was named first-team All-America and Hockey East Player of the Year while majoring in graphic design, which makes him a prime candidate for double duty if the Penguins would ever decide to change their iconic logo.
In his first pro season, Reese logged nine goals and 29 points in 41 games with the Baby Pens before his promotion. The 23-year-old has yet to register a point in his first two games and 17 minutes with the NHL Penguins.
However, Aston-Reese’s ice time increased to 10:47 on Tuesday night in a victory over the Vegas Golden Knights at PPG Paints Arena, after he played 6:24 in his first game.
“To get more experience out there in the second game felt good,” he said. “I felt like I created some (scoring) chances and played pretty well defensively. Now that I’ve got a few practices and two games under my belt, I’m feeling more confident.”
Sullivan is confident enough in Aston-Reese that he may put the rookie on the penalty kill, a unit that lost Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney to lower-body injuries Tuesday night.
“It’s definitely an opportunity for me,” Aston-Reese said. “Whatever league you’re in, when guys go down, other guys have to step up and you’ve got to make to make the most of it.”
The Penguins hope to make the most of the fathers’ trip, looking to combine bonding and winning over a long weekend. The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions have won five of their last six games and are 11-3-0 since the beginning of the new year, raising their overall record to 30-22-3 following a lackluster start.
“It’s a nice gesture by the organization and it’s our way of saying thank you to the dads and families that have helped us become the people we are,” Sullivan said. “It’s a great opportunity for fathers to see what their sons go through during the season. But it’s like I told (the players), we’re going on this trip for a reason and we’ve got to be focused and go out and do everything we can to win these two games.”
Crosby smiled when asked if there was extra pressure on the players to do well with their fathers along.
“I think the fathers are just as motivated as we are,” he said. “They want us to win so they’ll get invited back again next year.”