Penguins' Ryan Reaves, Ian Cole emerge after recent benchings
Tuesday night's game at PPG Paints Arena was a showdown between Marc-Andre Fleury and the superstar scorers he called his teammates and friends for the past decade.
Naturally, then, the first two Penguins players to put pucks past the Vegas Golden Knights goaltender were Ryan Reaves and Ian Cole, two guys who came into the game with four goals and 208 hits between them this season.
It was a development that proved how unpredictable goal scoring can be in hockey. It also provided postgame comedy in the locker room.
Reaves, who has scored two of his 30 career goals against Fleury, was asked if he has the book on how to beat the affable goaltender.
“I wouldn't say I have the book on him,” he joked. “It's more like a pop-up book. A picture book, maybe.”
Jokes aside, Reaves and Cole have something in common beyond scoring against Fleury on Tuesday night. Both have responded to a recent stint in the press box with some of their best hockey of the season.
Cole was a healthy scratch for a seven-game stretch last month. He returned to the lineup Jan. 25 against Minnesota when Matt Hunwick suffered an upper-body injury and hasn't given up the spot since.
Cole has a goal, three assists and a plus-6 rating in his last five games.
“Taking advantage of the rest for sure,” Cole said. “We've played a lot of hockey the past two years. Certainly re-energized and excited to be back out there.”
When Cole was scratched for a four-game stint in November, his name popped up in trade rumors. Cole's position on the matter always has been pretty clear, although he hasn't said so in as many words. It's play me or trade me.
The way he's performing now — moving the puck quickly and cleanly, cutting down on turnovers and penalties — playing Cole seems to be the obvious way to go.
“Colesy's a real solid player when he plays within himself, when he's got a little bit of an edge to his game, when he keeps his decision-making with the puck simple, smart and calculated,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think Colesy can be a very effective defenseman for us and has been for a number of years here.
“We think his game has been very good since he's been back in the lineup. That's why he's in the lineup.”
Reaves was in a slightly different situation than Cole. He didn't slip out of the lineup because of anything he did or didn't do on the ice, necessarily. He was a victim of a numbers game, getting scratched for three games late last month while the Penguins had a full complement of healthy wingers.
Now, with Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary out week -to-week with lower-body injuries and Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney leaving Tuesday's game with lower-body ailments of their own, the Penguins are anything but healthy.
That means more opportunity — and more responsibility — for Reaves. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby have been scorching hot in recent weeks, but they can't do it on their own.
“You can't lean on those top guys every single game like we have been,” Reaves said. “It doesn't matter who's in the lineup. We've got to make sure we're helping out.”
Tuesday night's game provided a blueprint for what Reaves can provide moving forward.
He delivered seven hits, including a steamroller job to defenseman Colin Miller behind the net in the second period. He chipped in offensively. Most importantly, he used his skating ability to keep up with the team's up-tempo style while playing a regular shift.
“Boys are rolling,” Reaves said. “Hope to bring what I bring and keep it going.”