Aston-Reese a Key to Penguins’ Recent Success

After winning just four of 14 games in the month of November, leaving fans scratching their heads and placing blame on everyone from the coaches to the management to Justin Schultz and his broken leg, the Pittsburgh Penguins rebounded to take 11 of 15 contests in December. And, as of Jan. 6, they are riding an eight-game win streak that started with a 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Dec. 19. Young talent has played a role in this dramatic turnaround, thanks to contributions from players like Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon and Zach Aston-Reese.

Aston-Reese’s Pittsburgh Roots

Known as Reeser to his teammates, ZAR to the fans and Zachary Glenn to his mother, Aston-Reese used the undrafted back door into the NHL by signing a two-year entry-level contract with the Penguins on Mar. 14, 2017.

Though Aston-Reese is from Staten Island, New York, he cheered for the Penguins as a kid, thanks to his father William, who grew up in Crafton, Pennsylvania. The signing was a homecoming of sorts for Aston-Reese, who used to attend Penguins games at Mellon Arena when the family was visiting his grandmother, and, as he told the hosts of the Penguins podcast The Scoop, he wore number 27 for a time during his youth hockey days as a tribute to his favorite player, Alexei Kovalev.

Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Kesler Pittsburgh Penguins' Zach Aston-Reese
Anaheim Ducks’ Ryan Kesler and Pittsburgh Penguins’ Zach Aston-Reese (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Before joining his favorite childhood team, Aston-Reese chose to attend Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts to play Division I hockey rather than press his luck at the NHL draft. This move seemed to be beneficial in bolstering his resume. He earned Hockey East First-Team All-Star, Hockey East Player of the Year and NCAA First-Team All-American honors during his time at Northeastern, as well as being a “Hat Trick” finalist for the Hobey Baker Award in 2016-17.

From Northeastern Hockey Star to Penguins Fourth-Liner

One can assume these college hockey accolades helped Aston-Reese ink his first NHL deal and earned him time with the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Just shy of a year after signing with the team, he made his NHL debut on Feb. 3, 2018 against the New Jersey Devils.

It took him five games to get not just his first, but also his second goal in the NHL in a 6-3 win over the Ottawa Senators. However, a long-term injury sidelined him for almost a month, but he returned to the lineup at the end of March determined to work hard and prepare for his first NHL playoff action, a first round series against the rival Philadelphia Flyers.

Zach Aston-Reese John Carlson
Pittsburgh Penguins center Zach Aston-Reese (46) skates with the puck as Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson (74) chases in second period in game one of the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite notching his first playoff point, an assist on Riley Sheahan’s goal in a Game 5 shutout against the Flyers, Aston-Reese’s 2018 Playoffs were short-lived. Just a few weeks later, in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Capitals, right-wing Tom Wilson delivered a high check to Aston-Reese’s head that resulted in a concussion and broken jaw for him, and a three-game suspension for Wilson.

Understandably, following the incident, Aston-Reese was cautious when he returned to the ice for training camp the next fall. As he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Matt Vensel,

“Coming back from injury is always tough, especially after a big hit like that. You don’t want to be second-guessing yourself when you’ve got the puck or be scared to take a puck because your head’s down,” (from ‘Zach Aston-Reese, Finally Over the Tom Wilson Hit, is “Really Bringing It” Again” – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 11/12/18).

Hesitancy was perhaps one of the reasons Aston-Reese did not make the Penguins’ final roster after training camp and was returned to Wilkes-Barre, leaving the media, and a legion of Penguins’ armchair general managers, frustrated with coach Mike Sullivan and general manager Jim Rutherford’s decisions. Aston-Reese did not have to spend too much time in the minors, however, receiving the call-up on Nov. 6, 2018, just in time for a road game with the Capitals the next night.

Aston-Reese & Penguins Draw Success From Adversity

Call it a comeback, call it exorcising demons, call it whatever you’d like, but since his return, Aston-Reese has proven that he’s not only over his injury and over his hesitancy, but that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to propel the team to victory, whether that is blocking shots, making passes or scoring goals. The last one especially.

Though he has only six goals and 11 points in 28 games, a relatively small number on a team with the likes of Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel, Aston-Reese has a penchant for lighting the lamp at exciting and crucial times. These include breaking a third-period tie in November against the Winnipeg Jets with 5:12 left in the game and opening the scoring on the Penguins’ first game of 2019, a 7-2 victory against the New York Rangers.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Winnipeg Jets
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Zach Aston-Reese and Phil Kessel celebrate after Aston-Reese scored against Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan)

As Aston-Reese told NBC Sports color analyst Brian Boucher after the Jan. 2 victory at Madison Square Garden, the team stays positive during bad periods and focuses on working harder to win when things aren’t in their favor. This type of thinking is helping the Penguins solidify their drive and determination for a serious playoff run come April. But with players like Aston-Reese on the squad, ones who are versatile and can do anything from stepping up on the power play to filling in for injured top-line wingers, it makes sticking to the plan and positive mindset that much easier.