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Could Zucker’s Bad Luck Be Heinen’s Big Break?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Danton Heinen

SUNRISE, Fla. — Danton Heinen played 13 minutes, 48 seconds during the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-2 victory against Florida at FLA Live Arena Thursday night.

He was assessed one minor penalty, credited with one shot on goal and had one giveaway attributed to him.

It was, by most measures, a fairly pedestrian, forgettable performance.

Nonetheless, Heinen — who has gone from healthy scratch to second-line left winger because of the injury that has sidelined Jason Zucker on a week-to-week basis — received a favorable evaluation from Mike Sullivan after the game.

“I thought Danton had a good game,” Sullivan said. “We think he’s got real good offensive instincts. He’s a guy who can score goals. He can make plays. He has the ability to play in our top-six, and he’s done it for a year and a half now.

“We move him all around the lineup, but in times like these, when (Zucker) goes down and we’re looking for somebody to move up into the top-six, he’s a guy we look to who’s capable of doing that. I thought he played pretty solid.”

Perhaps, but Heinen also failed to score a goal for the 20th consecutive game, not counting the five for which he was a healthy scratch. There’s more to this game than generating goals, of course, but doing so is a significant component of Heinen’s game.

He got a career-high 18 last season, and scored three more in the first five games of 2022-23. But his touch deserted him at that point, and there’s been no indication of when it might return.

Heinen was the default choice to enter the lineup when Zucker was injured Monday — he had been the 13th forward on a team that dresses 12 — but hanging onto his temporary place alongside Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust while Zucker heals will be a lot easier if he chips in with a goal now and then.

“That line has the potential to be solid for us,” Sullivan said.

The immediate future of the unit was thrown into doubt during the third period of the Panthers game, when a Sidney Crosby slap shot struck Malkin just above the right knee, hobbling him. But if the line still is intact when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Carolina Sunday at 5:08 p.m., Heinen will have another opportunity to validate Ron Hextall’s decision to bring him back, after allowing Heinen to explore free agency last summer.

When a player is mired in a protracted slump, like the one Heinen is enduring, the challenge to get out of it probably is more psychological than physical. And while coaches and teammates can offer encouragement, it ultimately falls on the player to contend with whatever issues have developed in his game.

“You can’t always control … whether it goes in the net,” Sullivan said. “What you can control is the process, and that’s what we talk to him about: Just making sure that he pays attention to the details, that he stays in the moment, takes what the game gives him.

“Then, just value some of the little things that I think add up to winning. Things like being strong on the (boards) and making good decisions in the neutral zone, getting in on the forecheck. Making sure he stays on the right side of 50-50 pucks. When a guy like Danton focuses on those types of things, he’s going to get the (offensive) looks, because he’s playing the game the right way, and his instincts will take over.”