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Penguins Notes: O’Connor ‘Trying to Do More’; Size, Strength & Figuring it Out



pittsburgh penguins, drew o'connor

SUNRISE, Fla — Drew O’Connor has made quite the impression, finally. After signing as a college free agent from Dartmouth and earning a chance at the NHL level in the 2020-21 NHL season and beginning of the 2021-22 seasons, O’Connor’s play regressed, and he receded from the Penguins’ conversation.

With the Penguins in need of bodies, O’Connor got another chance.

And he has seized it with both hands in a death grip. O’Connor’s play has not only earned him more ice time, but it’s beginning to establish him in the NHL. The Penguins’ fourth line has life, and O’Connor has the confidence to make plays he wouldn’t have tried before.

See also that power move around Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Darren Raddysh for the Penguins’ fourth goal, a go-ahead goal on Thursday night. The Penguins won in OT, 5-4.

Before the game, O’Connor chatted with a couple of reporters, including PHN.

“I think just trying to take advantage of the opportunities when I see them. I don’t think I’ve really changed my mindset much except for just feeling more comfortable out there, and I think that playing with the puck,” O’Connor said on Thursday morning. “I wouldn’t say my mindset has changed — But maybe (I will) try to do a little more when I can. Obviously, not too much (I don’t want) to turn pucks over or anything like that. But just taking chances when they come.”

He certainly followed through.

O’Connor, 24, is a big body in the Penguins’ lineup, which has few players on the plus side of 6-feet and over 200 pounds. He is listed as 6-foot-3 and precisely 200 pounds.

He’s been playing a 200-foot game with his fourth-line comrades and has three points in his last four games.

It’s not lost on Coach Mike Sullivan, from whom many in the fanbase insist does not play young players. Sullivan rattled off a laundry list of reasons that O’Connor is sticking in the lineup.

“He’s just strong, you know? He’s strong on the puck. ” His foot speed is evident, and his size and strength — he’s been really good getting to the forecheck,” said Sullivan. “I think he’s really taken an understanding of how we’re asking him to play in order to carve a role out for himself. When he plays a straight-ahead game and a north-south game and takes pucks to the net, protects pucks, gets in on the forecheck, and uses his body by finishing checks when he has an opportunity — When he does all those things, he’s a real effective player for us.

For the record, O’Connor was demoted on Friday before the NHL trade deadline, then immediately recalled Saturday after the Penguins’ salary cap situation was sorted and finalized.

On paper, the Penguins’ benefit of sending him down was that he would also be eligible for the AHL playoffs.

“(O’Connor) has taken a lot of risk out of his game, and he’s playing a conscientious game out there,” Sullivan concluded. “That was a huge goal for us (Thursday). And we were thrilled for him to get rewarded for his efforts.”

O’Connor’s time is now.

Saturday night, he’ll likely play beside Nick Bonino and Josh Archibald. It will be his 10th straight game in the lineup, going back to Feb. 14. He has three points in his last four games after being scoreless in the first five.

It’s welcome production from a team that was getting scandalously little.

The unassuming forward played center on Thursday, though Sullivan admitted the team likes him better on the wing. For O’Connor, it seems like the player is figuring it out; what the game and his team need.

“I think I’m trying to hold on to the pucks a bit more. When I first came up, they were getting off my stick quick,” admitted O’Connor. “So I’m trying to hold onto pucks, make smart plays, kind of scan (the zone) to see what’s there more often. I think confidence is part of that — Just having enough confidence to kind of try some different stuff, I guess.”