Zach Aston-Reese joked about it after Saturday’s 6-1 win at St. Louis, but the Pittsburgh Penguins winger might have been onto something about his goal in the game, a deft net-front deflection that immediately brought to mind the kind of plays team captain Sidney Crosby makes.
“I saw Sid do it a few times and thought why not do it?” Aston-Reese cracked. “No, it happened quick and I just put my stick out and it took a nice hop off it.”
Aston-Reese spent the final two periods of that game on the top line with Crosby and Jake Guentzel after Bryan Rust left because of a lower-body injury that he was still being evaluated for Sunday.
It’s possible Aston-Reese will be back in that spot Monday when the Penguins play at Minnesota. While Rust seemed like a strong fit, Aston-Reese could be, too.
Coach Mike Sullivan, through a comparison, paid Aston-Reese what would be considered a high compliment by anyone who follows the Penguins personnel closely.
Sullivan said Aston-Reese “brings an element of stiffness to his game. He goes to the net. He’s good in the battle areas. He has a similar skill set to (Patric) Hornqvist in that regard. So when you have guys like Sid and Jake that are real good playmakers, have real good offensive instincts, and now you add a guy like Zach that’s going to go to the net, that’s going to help in the battle areas, that’s going to create space with a little bit of touch, then potentially that line could be successful. And Zach in particular could be successful with those guys.”
Aston-Reese, 24, has five goals, eight points in 25 games with the Penguins after beginning the season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. He has a history of producing offense.
He averaged nearly a goal a game and two points a game as a senior at Northeastern University and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist. With Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he has amassed 74 points in 62 games.
“Zach’s a good player. He has the ability to finish,” Sullivan said. “We think he can score at this level more consistently than he has to this point. He certainly scored at a high level when he was in college. He’s shown he can score at the American (Hockey) League level. We believe he can score at this level as well.”
Playing with Crosby and Guentzel, if he continues to do so, could help after spending most of his 41 NHL games in the bottom six.
“You know you’re going to get a few Grade-A chances,” Aston-Reese said of being on the ice with Crosby. “It’s just about being ready to bear down on the puck and find some good positions in front of the net.”
Another thing happened Saturday that had nothing to do with his linemates. Immediately after the Penguins’ fifth goal, he accepted a challenge from St. Louis’ Joel Edmundson to fight.
“Just happy I didn’t get hit harder. I got hit harder with the glove on, actually,” Aston-Reese said. “It was nice to get the first one out of the way.”
Sullivan liked Aston-Reese’s gumption, even though the young player got a concussion during the playoffs last spring on a hit from Washington’s Tom Wilson.
“I’m sure it will give him a boost of confidence,” Sullivan said. “The guy he fought is a pretty tough kid. He’s big. He’s strong. And we know Zach has that edge to his game. Anytime as a player you get that first one under your belt, it makes you feel a little bit better. He certainly should gain some confidence from it, and moving forward we’re hoping that he’ll continue to bring his physical play to the lines that we put him on.
“But Zach has more than that to his game, and that’s what we’re hoping to tap into, especially if he’s going to play in a top-six role.”