Despite 65 minutes of hockey halfway across the country later Tuesday evening, the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t take a day off on Wednesday (to the chagrin of a few hockey writers stuck on I-79 while a Penndot worker in a bucket looked at a country road bridge). The tempo was quick, the boys were loud, and the coaches shuffled the Penguins lines just a bit.
Wednesday afternoon, Penguins coaches bumped Aston-Reese down to the Penguins fourth line and promoted Danton Heinen to the third line.
The defensive rock Aston-Reese had not yet found his stride since returning from COVID protocol a couple of games into the season. Aston-Reese felt his wind was back, but his hands were not.
“Yeah, it’s been a little frustrating. My hands have not felt up to par, kind of where I want them. I feel as if offensively I could do a lot better job holding onto pucks and just have better hands around the net,” Aston-Reese said on Monday. “I feel like that’s kind of been lacking since I’ve come back, but I know with time that’ll come back…For me, it’s kind of playing smart–I’ve been trying to hit as much as I can–be effective on the forecheck, whatever we need momentum trying to set the next line up for success.”
Aston-Reese is among the league lead in hits. He is currently fourth with 48 hits.
Perhaps it’s not a significant demotion, as the Pittsburgh Penguins fourth line was perhaps their best on Tuesday night in the 3-2 SO loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. With Heinen or Dominik Simon on the RW, the Brian Boyle line has frequently been able to tilt the ice for the Penguins top players this season.
Aston-Reese has three assists in eight games.
Heinen has been a sniper for the Penguins. This season, Heinen has seven points (4-3-7) in 10 games.
Pittsburgh Penguins Returns:
Penguins defensemen Chad Ruhwedel and Marcus Pettersson returned to practice following their 10-day COVID protocol absences. Each took and passed their cardio tests on Tuesday morning.
Each looked like a full participant and a go for Thursday night against Florida. Ruhwedel admitted the 10-day protocol was a long 10 days. He lost taste and smell and had a stuffy nose.
“I still have to talk to the trainers and coaching staff,” Ruhwedel said. “The toughest part is getting your legs underneath you.”
Both Pettersson and Ruhwedel said they felt much better today than yesterday, though Pettersson said he still had some congestion–kind of like a cold.
Pettersson paired with Ruhwedel. Coaches kept P.O. Joseph with John Marino, and Juuso Riikola and Mark Friedman appear to be the spare pair. Neither Friedman nor Riikola played more than necessary on Tuesday night. Both finished under 10 minutes of ice time.
The four-game stint for Riikola could not have gone worse. Blame is in the eye of the beholder, but he chased the play and created open space near the net for Chicago’s first goal on Tuesday. Friedman didn’t play the scene properly, either. And both appear to be headed for the press box.
“Every game, I feel better. The more minutes you get, you kind of start feeling like you’re playing games again. And I think more games I play, I think I’m going to feel better and better how the longer we go,” Riikola said on Monday.
Riikola could be demoted to the WBS Penguins later Wednesday once Pettersson and Ruhwedel are confirmed healthy enough to play. He will get plenty of ice time there, instead of the press box nachos he had for most of the last three-plus seasons in Pittsburgh.
However, the defenseman turned 28-years-old on Tuesday, and his chances to become an NHL regular are dwindling.