Pittsburgh Penguins winger Zach Aston-Reese is still trying to find his way in the NHL. Is he a scoring net-front winger, is he a depth player or a defensive hammer? This season, Aston-Reese is on pace for a respectable 32 points. He has two goals and four points in 10 games and both of his goals came in a grudge match against Winnipeg on Oct. 13. Since then, Aston-Reese has chipped the paint off the posts and just missed some glorious scoring chances.
Tuesday night, he missed a chance to tie the game when his rebound poke squarely hit the post in the third period. It was a bit of a microcosm for the young player who has had a few hot streaks in his career halted by injury.
Aston-Reese is ready to break out but the delays are frustrating him. The dejected player was publicly kicking himself after a tough night which included a turnover against Winnipeg and a missed scoring chance on Oct. 8. Generally, the ability to give such a spanking is reserved fans on Twitter. After he failed to tie the game Tuesday night, he again appeared dejected. Aston-Reese leaned back in his locker stall against the concrete wall and spoke to the media.
“I don’t think it’s more pressure, I think it’s getting more opportunity and with that comes more chances. I’ve just got to put them in,” Aston-Reese said. The words don’t read or sound like the visual picture.
Aston-Reese has been on the cusp of a breakout since his first recall in February 2018. He had six points in eight games then missed more than a month due to injury. He came back for the playoffs but was then taken out by Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson, who was suspended for the headshot.
Last season, he had four points in six games but was then injured at the end of a fight with Florida Panther Colton Sceviour in early January. Aston-Reese came back in February and was again finding a groove before being injured in early March. He has every reason to be frustrated but that also leads to white knuckles from gripping the stick too tight.
Tuesday night, Aston-Reese quickly recalled that Winnipeg game after he clanged the post.
“It feels like the same story as Winnipeg. You know, (I had) a chance to tie it up and…bad luck,” Aston-Reese said.
Zach Aston-Reese is one of the enjoyable players to talk to in the locker room. He is certainly one of my favorites. He is affable and honest; always willing to give a quick quote or answer a hockey question. The undrafted free agent from Northeastern has endured more than his share of bad luck in his short career.
Tuesday night, His line with Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev otherwise dominated Florida. They allowed just one shot attempt. A single shot attempt. But that one was in the back of their net.
“Some mental mistakes, turnovers in tough areas of the ice: at the blue lines, offensive and defensive,” he said. “You saw their second goal was because of turnovers there. And there were a few times when we couldn’t get the puck in the zone and they’d come back and our D would be out for extended times. They would just shove it down our throats.”
Maybe a little bit of denial would be a good thing for Aston-Reese. He has the skills and potential to be a solid top-nine, maybe top-six forward for the Penguins. His next NHL game will be only his 70th.
Head coach Mike Sullivan was quick to vigorously defend Aston-Reese, in part from Aston-Reese.
“(Aston-Reese) is playing hard, he’s playing well. Zach is a good player. He’s a good, strong 200-foot player, he’s good in the battle areas, and he’s good on the wall,” Sullivan said. “He’s a good penalty killer and he’s getting chances. Eventually, those chances will go in the net for him.”
Zach Aston-Reese will have his time when the questions will finally have answers. Just how good can he be? One pitfall he will need to avoid is worrying about the misses and mistakes. After all, those misses only come from opportunity and he has created enough of those. When they start to go in the net, it could be a windfall for him and the Penguins.