Penguins notebook: Pouliot settles in after rough 2nd shift

Bill West
| Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, 11:12 a.m.

In the second shift of his season debut with the Penguins, Derrick Pouliot gave his doubters evidence of his defensive vulnerabilities.

Vancouver center Bo Horvat charged with the puck into the Penguins' zone. He dangled the rubber disc in front of him, then to his forehand side. Pouliot tried to swat away the puck only to see it slide between his legs and back onto the stick of Horvat, who ripped a clean shot from close range that goalie Marc-Andre Fleury turned away.

Nothing so glaring as that sequence followed the rest of the way for Pouliot, the 22-year-old, puck-moving defenseman and No. 8 pick in the 2012 draft. In 12 minutes of ice time, he absolved himself of the early embarrassment and finished with positive possession numbers and a zero in the plus-minus column.

“I tried to kind of show that I can defend,” said Pouliot, who led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defensemen in goals (six) and assists (17) before the Penguins called him up Monday. “Obviously there was that play in the first where that wasn't the best play. But other than that, I thought I kept it fairly simple, just trying to do the right things.

“It kind of felt like my first game again, to be honest. I was a little bit nervous and kind of timid in the first. Hopefully I'll settle in here.”

Pouliot appeared in 34 games with the Penguins last season. He tallied two goals and five assists but also was a minus-11 with 18 giveaways versus 11 takeaways.

While David Warsofsky, who went on the injured reserve list Saturday, recovers from a concussion, Pouliot and 26-year-old Ian Cole likely are to contend for starts. Pouliot was a healthy scratch Monday and Thursday. Cole became the odd man out against the Canucks, which caused coach Mike Sullivan to split up season-long defensive pair Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy and rearrange things.

Lovejoy skated with Pouliot, while Dumoulin teamed with Trevor Daley.

“We thought (those pairs) might give us a better chance to win,” Sullivan said. “The NHL pace is much different than the American League pace, so for any player that comes up, that's an adjustment. I thought as the game went on, (Pouliot) adjusted well. He made some pretty good outlet passes. ... We know he's going to continue to improve and get better.”

Wacky wingers

Before Saturday's 5-4 win over Vancouver, Sullivan described winger Chris Kunitz as in the lineup and Beau Bennett as a game-time decision.

Kunitz, dealing with a lower-body ailment from Thursday's win over Philadelphia, and Bennett, out of the lineup since Dec. 14 with a shoulder injury, flipped the script on their coach just before the opening faceoff.

During warm-ups, Kunitz and the coaches decided to make the winger a last-minute scratch.

“When he came to the rink, he felt well enough that he thought he could play,” Sullivan said. “He's a tough kid, and I think sometimes his good intentions to help the team might've clouded his judgment a little bit. He wasn't in a position where he could help the team win, so we decided to hold him out.”

That development led to a first period of instability on Sidney Crosby's left wing, and Bennett, who began the game on the fourth line, spent much of the second period on the Penguins' top line.

But Sullivan also used Conor Sheary, Kunitz's last-minute replacement, and Matt Cullen to fill the void. The coach settled on Cullen for the critical final period.

Bennett and Sheary, wingers for Kevin Porter in the final frame, each finished with eight minutes of ice time.

“We started him on the fourth line to try to give him an opportunity to get a few shifts under his belt, see how he felt, see how he was doing,” Sullivan said of Bennett. “It's hard. He hasn't played in a while, so the timing is not quite there. We tried to put him in a position where we could ease him into the game, so to speak. We tried him with Sid just, I think, by default. With Kuni being out, it leaves a hole there for us.”

Deutsch marker

Winger Tom Kuhnhackl, son of German hockey legend Erich Kuhnhackl, earned his first NHL point in Saturday's win with an assist on Bryan Rust's goal, which gave the Penguins a 4-3 lead.

Praised early and often in his first six games with the Penguins, Kuhnhackl remained patient about his lack of an NHL point. It finally arrived two days after his 24th birthday.

“Not at this point in my career,” he said when asked whether he grew frustrated by the wait. “I judge when I've earned the coach's trust and he puts me out in different situations. I just don't want to make mistakes. Keep it as simple as possible.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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