The “Rust-ache” is working well for Pittsburgh Penguins winger Bryan Rust and his hot streak upon returning from injury to the Penguins lineup, so Penguins winger Zach Aston-Reese is also giving the facial hair thing a go. PHN chatted with the Penguins 205-pound winger this weekend about that facial hair, his line, role, and his new mindset, too.
Aston-Reese has been a solid contributor and consistent member of the Penguins “fourth line.” We use quotes because the line has had far greater responsibility and role than a typical fourth line and because head coach Mike Sullivan pushed back on the label, too,
“If you want to call Teddy Blueger’s line the fourth line,” Sullivan said earlier this month.
As well as the line played, points did not follow. Last season, Aston-Reese admitted to PHN that fourth line duty was about defense and any offense was a bonus. That’s not longer the case for the Penguins third-year winger who has battled injuries in his first two seasons. In fact, it seemed for every Aston-Reese uptick, there was an injury. Now that he’s healthy, Aston-Reese is waiting for the uptick.
“It’s still a defense-first (mentality on the fourth line). You’ll see (the line) take a lot of D-zone draws. It’s harder to go 200 feet and score, but we had our chances (Saturday),” Aston-Reese said. I had a breakaway, (Lafferty) had a breakaway. A couple of odd-man rushes for our line. There’s no reason we can’t chip in offensively.”
“We have the skill. We have the work ethic to play defense first. I guess it’s more of a hybrid mindset (than last year).”
Aston-Reese is getting chances. The numbers are overwhelming, but he has just one point in his last 14 games, which followed a two-goal, three-point night against Winnipeg on Oct. 13.
The analytics show just how good Aston-Reese and linemates have been. They begin most shifts in the defensive zone, which are hard minutes, and end them in the offensive zone. The line with Blueger and Brandon Tanev has tilted the ice for the Penguins.
For the advanced stats crowd, when Aston-Reese is on the ice at even strength, the Penguins have earned 60% of the scoring chances and nearly 63% of the high-danger chances. Digging deeper, despite starting in the defensive zone, Aston-Reese has a whopping 55% Corsi. If you’re not sure what Corsi is, you’re not alone.
“I really don’t know too much about the Corsi stats, but just from going out there and doing it, we have a lot of D-zone starts,” said Aston-Reese. “And we don’t give much up.”
No, that line didn’t. Without Sidney Crosby in the lineup Saturday, head coach Mike Sullivan flipped Tanev to the second line with Jared McCann and Sam Lafferty joined the so-called fourth line. Unsurprisingly, the fourth-line had the best-advanced stats of any Pittsburgh Penguins line in the 6-1 beatdown of the Toronto Maple Leafs. They also had as many scoring chances as the dominant Evgeni Malkin line.
While some fans begin to stir and wonder if this is Aston-Reese’s career path, it should be noted that when he gets momentum, he can carry it for years. In his first two years at Northeastern, he was injured often and struggled to have the impact he wanted. In his next two years, he became one of the most prolific scorers in college hockey.
More than one person connected to Aston-Reese and the Penguins referenced that arc, this summer while Aston-Reese trained with the Penguins Director of Sports Science Andy O’Brien. It also hasn’t escaped ZAR.
Last season, injuries interrupted each hot streak. Aston-Reese had four points in five games before suffering a broken hand in early January. He had six points in nine games before suffering a lower body injury in March. This season, he has been healthy but hasn’t yet had the extended offensive run.
“(I’m) in a little bit of a drought but chances will start going in,” Aston-Reese said. “There’s no reason to get frustrated, we’re playing really good hockey, so it’s just about winning. Points are going to come eventually.”
What is That on Your Face?
It’s also November, and a few Pittsburgh Penguins players are participating in the facial hair trend for “Movember” to raise awareness for men’s health. Aston-Reese has a new mustache instead of his beard or perpetual five o’clock shadow. He, or more specifically it, turned heads when he walked into the locker room Sunday.
The lip caterpillar led to an extended discussion amongst the gathered about how one should pick a porn name. Such conversations tend to arise after a 6-1 win.
Aston-Reese laughed that he was going for more of a Fu Manchu look but didn’t have a steady hand with the razor, so it became the more traditional mustache not by choice but by necessity. Perhaps the mustache will bring him the same scoring touch it brought to Rust, and perhaps or he’ll go on that tear.
But, it’s still about the defense first.
Pittsburgh Penguins Winger Zach Aston-Reese: