PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Erik Gudbranson has been a pleasant surprise for the Penguins since the team acquired him from the Vancouver Canucks for surplus forward Tanner Pearson. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound defenseman with a bit of snarl was acquired for because the Penguins felt they needed more pushback against tough opponents.
Tonight, the Penguins begin a potentially season-altering home-and-home series against division rival Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus has often made the Penguins stars a target of physical aggression. And Gudbranson will be watching.
“I’m always watching and paying attention to those little things. I don’t expect anything different tonight,” Gudbranson said matter of factly. “They do come hard. They are physical. They’ve always been tough on your star players. It’s going to be a fun game.”
Gudbranson, 27, has been a presence on the Penguins blue line in his first three games, even without large hit totals. Gudbranson has dished only five hits in three games but the video of him schooling Washington Capitals nemesis Tom Wilson with a few right hands made the rounds on the internet.
The Penguins newest supposed-project has one assist in three games and is a +2. For a slightly deeper dive, his Corsi is 57 percent despite starting 58 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone.
The right-handed defenseman has been paired with Marcus Pettersson and has averaged over 20 minutes per game since his arrival which followed the injuries to Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta. Dumoulin has returned, but Letang and Maatta remain out which has opened up opportunity and ice time for Gudbranson who has admittedly struggled in Vancouver.
After his first practice, Gudbranson said, “This is a team that can help guys out in situations like that. Even out there in practice, I felt a lot better than I had in Vancouver.”
Gudbranson was immediately optimistic about the Penguins reclamation powers and his potential to fit in with the Penguins. Thus far, he has blended well.
“There are some pretty good hockey players on this team that are potentially making me look good. That’s probably the real answer,” laughed Gudbranson. “I think I’ve fit in here pretty well. They play aggressive, which fits my style.”
The funny thing about fitting in a new environment is that it breeds confidence. Confidence breeds better play and the cycle creates momentum upward.
“I’m just having some fun, trying to play loose. These are fun games to be a part of. If you can’t get up for them, there’s something wrong with you,” Gudbranson smiled.
There is a distinct sense the big guy is relishing not only the change of scenery and being dropped into a playoff atmosphere, but the specific on-ice situation, too. He’s getting to open up his game and the results have been positive.
After the Penguins rolled Florida Tuesday night, head coach Mike Sullivan said the Penguins have liked every game Gudbranson has played for them. The Penguins should–they’re 2-0-1 in those three games. Not only are the Penguins winning, but their defensive effort has been above reproach for the first time since…2017?
Gudbranson still credits the Penguins core and his teammates for his successful immersion.
“All over the league, there are really, really skilled players but these guys have been doing it so long, it’s like the back of their hand,” Gudbranson said before offering huge praise for a few specific players. “We’re lead very well in this room. All of the superstars do all of the little things extremely well. It’s been fun to be a part of.”
The fun begins tonight against Columbus and extends through Saturday when the Penguins and Columbus finish the home-and-home. Columbus is getting desperate to remain in the playoff chase. They trail the Penguins and Montreal Canadiens by two points and the next two games are four points games.
And just in case Columbus gets too physical, Gudbranson will be watching.