After Friday's morning skate, Zach Aston-Reese spoke on what he hoped to bring to the Penguins' top-6 in that night's game against the Bruins.
“I have to bring some physicality, some net-front presence and a little bit of grit,” said Aston-Reese.
You can mark Friday's 5-3 win down as mission accomplished. In his top-6 debut this season on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, Aston-Reese played his best game of the year, culminating in one assist, a shorthanded goal, and an empty net goal to seal the win.
Aston-Reese was credited with nine hits in the win -- two more than any other player on either team. His mark of nine hits was not only a personal season-high, surpassing his eight hits from Dec. 10 against the Islanders, it was a season-high for any Penguin so far this season.
"I thought I brought a little bit of physical element tonight," Aston-Reese said of his play after the game. "That was something that was said to me coming into tonight's matchup."
Aston-Reese led the Penguins in individual high-danger scoring chances (the scoring chances that happen within a few feet of the net), with three. When he wasn't taking the shots himself, he was driving to the net and creating traffic in front of the crease.
Aston-Reese's first point of the game was a secondary assist on Phil Kessel's goal in the first period. Aston-Reese passed the puck to an open Malkin, and then immediately rushed to the net to create a screen:
Net-front presence? ✅
It's hard to truly define "grit" in the context of hockey, but it can be summed up by being hard to play against. A player's drive. Not so much of how many hits they can dish out, but how they can take hits and respond.
Aston-Reese was hit four times, the second-most on the team. Of course, to get hit so often, a player has to possess the puck often, and Aston-Reese did. Aston-Reese was the only Penguin with more than one shot attempt on a rush in the game, and it was because of his positioning. In his first two rushes of the game, he shifted to the open areas in the center of the ice to allow Evgeni Malkin to take the rush on the left side. His line's second rush culminated in a shot attempt from Aston-Reese:
Aston-Reese blocked one shot in the game, a slap shot from Torey Krug while on the penalty kill in the second period.
Aston-Reese's penalty killing work paid off in the best way. The Bruins were no match for Aston-Reese's speed, and he scored the Penguins' first shorthanded goal of the season:
Mike Sullivan could not have been more pleased with Aston-Reese's performance after the game.
"I thought it was his best game of the year," said Sullivan. "I thought he was physical, I thought he went to the net, he was shooting the puck. He defends hard, he was real good on the penalty kill. I thought it was his best game of the year, I really liked him playing with (Malkin and Kessel)."
Aston-Reese is a great complement to the Malkin-Kessel line. With Malkin and Kessel being primarily playmakers, Aston-Reese is a strong two-way player who can add more defensive awareness to the line. We've only seen them play together in this one game so far this season, but this looks like a combination that could stick.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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