Penguins turn to call-ups for jolt of energy on fourth line

December 3, 2018

WASHINGTON - Twenty-six players have scored at least six AHL goals so far this season.

Two of them are on track to be in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup Wednesday night.

Based on personnel groupings at morning skate, Daniel Sprong and Juuso Riikola look like they’ll be healthy scratches when the Penguins play the Washington Capitals.

That means Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson, the six-goal scorers called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton when Derek Grant was sent down Monday, will likely make their NHL season debuts. Chad Ruhwedel is also expected to return to the lineup on defense.

The Penguins have received next to no offense from their fourth line in the early part of the season, but coach Mike Sullivan said that’s not necessarily his motivation for turning to Aston-Reese and Wilson.

“I’d like to see them bring us a lot of energy,” Sullivan said. “I’d like to see (them) help us build momentum and establish an offensive-zone forecheck and establish some offensive-zone time. I think that line has the potential to do that.

“They’re a line that defensively is very sound. We could use them in defensive-zone situations if need be. That’s how we look at that line and what it can bring to this team to help us win.”

Aston-Reese, a hard-nosed 24-year-old who played 16 games for the Penguins last year in the regular season and nine more in the playoffs, was sent down at the end of training camp. He was the only forward among the leading candidates for one of the final roster spots who didn’t have to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL, and his camp performance wasn’t enough to overcome that obstacle.

Since arriving in Wilkes-Barre, he’s recorded 41 shots on goal, most on the team and fifth-best in the league. He had a hat trick in an 8-5 loss to Bridgeport on Sunday.

He said he focused on improving the physical part of his game, from throwing hits to winning puck battles.

“Every day was just a day of growth,” Aston-Reese said. “The guys down there were so hungry, practice and game time. I definitely found an edginess to my game.”

Wilson, meanwhile, was named Wilkes-Barre/Scranton captain, filling the role held for the last five years by Tom Kostopoulos.

That honor can be a double-edged sword. It shows a team respects a player’s character, but it might also show it views him as a minor-league talent.

Wilson, 27, made sure he didn’t get pigeon-holed by leading the team with 11 points in 11 games.

“Whenever you get the C, you start to wonder if you’re just kind of getting a leadership role down there,” Wilson said. “They said in exit meetings that wasn’t the case. They just wanted me to go down and lead by example and help the young guys. I’ve tried to do that so far.”

Wilson is equipped to provide the energy Sullivan asked for. He’s a 6-foot-2 power forward with 43 pro fights to his credit, including two in the NHL during a 34-game stay with the Florida Panthers and one with suspended Capitals winger Tom Wilson in juniors.

“My game is a physical game,” Wilson said. “I like to get in on the forecheck and get to the front of the net.”

In most cases over the past few years, call-ups from Wilkes-Barre have been filling in for injured players, trying to simply keep the Penguins’ train rolling. Now that they’re on a losing streak, that dynamic is a little different for Aston-Reese and Wilson.

“They’re such a great team. I know they’re not going to be losing for too long,” Wilson said. “Hopefully I can help get a win here and do my thing out there.”

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