Leadership of Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin provides boost for Zach Aston-Reese
Zach Aston-Reese didn’t mince words.
He fell on the sword for his mistake that led to the Winnipeg Jets’ winning score in a 4-1 win against the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday.
Tapping a puck off the boards from behind his own blue line, Aston-Reese ended up “passing” directly to Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers, who entered the Penguins’ offensive zone with the momentum of a comet. Using Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson as a screen in the left circle, Ehlers placed a perfect shot behind the glove of goaltender Matt Murray, giving his team a first-period lead it would not surrender.
“That second goal,” said Aston-Reese, “It was really no one else’s fault but my own.”
No one with an even rudimentary comprehension of the sport would argue with Aston-Reese’s conclusion.
Brian Dumoulin did.
The veteran defenseman went to bat for the young power forward still trying to find his footing in the NHL.
“I thought that was the right play,” Dumoulin said with emphasis to reporters huddled around his stall. “He’s trying to chip that to the middle underneath with speed, and (Ehlers) came off the bench and had a good read. We can’t overthink those. Those are obviously ones, that if we have those turnovers, we want to try to do everything to keep it out of our net. But you can’t fault him. He tried to make the right play and sometimes that happens.”
Maybe Dumoulin’s words were intended for microphones and cameras, but his sentiments reached their target.
“It feels good,” Aston-Reese said Wednesday following practice in Cranberry. “I was pretty upset between periods. Whether it was the right play, the wrong play, it ended up in our net. There was no excuse, no where to hide. But to have a guy have your back and pick you up even though you screwed up, it makes you feel like part of a family. I didn’t know he said that to the media. That’s nice to hear.”
Dumoulin delivered direct encouragement to Aston-Reese during the first intermission.
“In between periods, he just said shake it off,” Aston-Reese said. “There’s those nights where nothing goes your way. I could have easily had made it up the next shift. Instead, I hit the post dead on. Then, the next period, I chipped my tooth. I had to get a couple of stitches in my lip. It was one of those nights.”
Dumoulin’s endorsement came on a night he had a slightly different look on the ice.
With forward Evgeni Malkin sidelined because of injury, Dumoulin served as an alternate captain. In the past, on the occasions captain Sidney Crosby or alternates such as Malkin or defenseman Kris Letang have been absent, that designation would be awarded to veterans such as Matt Cullen.
Cullen retired in the offseason and, as a result, Dumoulin has moved up the team’s unofficial depth chart of leaders.
“He has great leadership skillsl, and he’s shown it through his day-to-day leadership that we see and witness in the locker room everyday,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He wore an ‘A’ last night because he was deserving of it.”
Given the attention Crosby, Malkin, Letang and others have commanded with the Penguins, it’s easy to overlook Dumoulin’s stature with the club. A spare part in the 2012 transaction that sent popular center Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes, Dumoulin was overshadowed by the other parts of that trade: Brandon Sutter and Derrick Pouliot.
But seven years later, he might be one of the team’s most consistent players and an undisputed leaders.
“People have always done it for me,” Dumoulin said. “It always seems the hockey culture, we talk about the group. It’s never about the individual. Just that one play, obviously people are going to talk about it, but that’s not why we lost that game. It’s important for us to stay focused and not to single guys out.”
The impetus to boost the spirits of a younger teammate is forged in part by established players who did the same for Dumoulin when he broke in as a rookie.
“The guys that I had when I was a rookie, I had guys like Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik,” Dumoulin said. “Just those guys in the (defensive) corp, they were amazing to have. Those were selfless guys. They were guys who stood back and blocked shots and did the thankless jobs. Guys that I tried to, not model my game after, but guys I knew my role was going to be similar to. I try to do those same thing.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .