Courtesy of Point Park University

Exclusive: Lafferty’s NHL arrival ‘pretty surreal’


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Sam Lafferty. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Sam Lafferty, a Hollidaysburg, Pa. native, will make his NHL debut when the Penguins face the Jets Tuesday at 7:08 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena.

Lafferty's recall was almost a given after it was announced that both Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad will be out "longer term," per Mike Sullivan, after suffering lower-body injuries in Saturday's 7-2 win over the Blue Jackets. After Lafferty's success as a rookie on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season --13 goals, 36 assists in 70 games, a point shy of team leader Ethan Prow -- his readiness for the next step was clear.

I spoke with Lafferty about his impending debut after he got into Pittsburgh on Monday night.

"It's pretty surreal," he told me. "I don't think it's really set in yet, it's hard to believe. At the same time I'm super excited and just can't wait to play tomorrow."

Raised just two hours outside of Pittsburgh in Hollidaysburg, Lafferty naturally grew up a Penguins fan. I first spoke with him in March 2018, just after he signed his first professional contract, and you could tell the moment was all the more special since the Penguins were his childhood team.

“I grew up a huge fan,” he said at the time. “I started watching the Penguins when I was four or five years old. It’s been really cool to now get to be part of the organization. Growing up, my favorite player was definitely Sidney Crosby.”

Playing in his first AHL game, and his first NHL preseason game, were all major milestones. I asked him Monday night what he thought the feeling would be like to put on a Penguins jersey for an actual NHL game on Tuesday, and he couldn't quite imagine the feeling.

"I think it'll be really, really special," he said. "It's hard to say what it's going to feel like, but I'm just really excited about it."

He'll have quite a few fans making the two-hour drive for the game to make the moment even more special. "Lots of friends, lots of family coming," he said. "So that'll make it that much better."

Lafferty appeared in four of the Penguins' six preseason games, recording a goal and an assist. He was scoreless in Wilkes-Barre's season opener on Saturday, playing first-line right wing alongside center Andrew Agozzino (who was also recalled Monday) and Sam Miletic on the other wing.

Lafferty felt that he had a stronger training camp and preseason this year, credited in part to the confidence that comes with being a second-year pro.

"I think I was definitely more confident, knowing what to expect after a year of pro hockey," he told me. "I thought I played even better than last year, so that gave me more confidence as well."

I'd expect Lafferty to be slotted somewhere in the bottom-6 against the Jets, where his fast, gritty skillset would presumably fit well. He began the 2018-19 season on a line with Zach Aston-Reese, a line that saw a lot of success at the start of last season, so it would also be interesting to see those two reunited.

Regardless of his linemates, what he's hoping to bring to the lineup won't change.

"I just want to play my game and contribute any way I can -- play a fast game, physical, and make plays too," he said. "I'll have a lot of excitement and a lot of jump in my step tomorrow."

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