Penguins' Zach Aston-Reese, 24, mixes well with Matt Cullen, 42
There are the one-liners that never fail to amuse his younger teammates.
Plus, the stories gathered over 21 NHL seasons that serve as a learning tool for anyone in the Penguins locker room smart enough to pay attention.
And, by the way, Matt Cullen still can get the job done on the ice at age 42.
“You watch him in the corners and the offensive zone,” linemate Zach Aston-Reese said. “He’s such a good skater. He can cut back and draw guys to him and pitch the puck off.”
On a night when Penguins management paid tribute to the decade of the 1970s, Cullen — the only player on the team born in that decade — played in the 1,477th game for his eighth team.
Coach Mike Sullivan said he appreciates Cullen’s contributions that go beyond his four goals, six assists and plus-3 in 31 games.
“He’s a student of the game,” Sullivan said. “He’s a smart player. That’s one of the reasons he’s continuing to play and be as effective as he is at his age. He loves the game. His passion for the game on a day-to-day basis is contagious for our group.
“He prides himself in helping some of this next generation, some of these younger players that we have. He really prides himself in trying to help those guys along the way become better players.”
Aston-Reese is one of those players. Now spending the majority of his time on Cullen’s line, Aston-Reese has totaled six goals, five assists and a plus-7 since his recall from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Nov. 6.
“It’s pretty awesome, actually,” Aston-Reese said of playing on a line with a center who’s 18 years older.
“He’s always stirring the pot a little bit, trying to get the guys going. It’s nice to have that experience, that quiet confidence that he presents.
“Whether we have a good shift or a bad shift, we’re always coming back to the bench talking about what we can do better, what works for us.”
Aston-Reese finds touch
Aston-Reese has turned into a recent point producer, getting points (two goals and two assists) in a four-game span between Dec. 29 and Jan. 4. He’s starting to regain the scoring touch that helped him lead the NCAA in goals (31) and points (63) with Northeastern in 2016-17.
“I’ve been getting some nice bounces lately,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just as simple as putting the puck where the goalie isn’t.
“They’re using me throughout the lineup in key situations, different situations in the game. So it’s been nice. Whether or not I’m on the scoresheet, I think I’ve been playing pretty good hockey.”
Aston-Reese started the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the final days of his recovery from the concussion and broken jaw he suffered in May when he took a hit from the Washington Capitals’ Tom Wilson in Game 3 of the Penguins’ second-round playoff series.
Not only was hockey set aside by the injury, he went three months without eating solid food. Then, there was the mental aspect of returning to the ice and the risks of the game.
“There’s always that fear in the back of your mind,” he said. “I felt that early on, definitely, a little bit in preseason. As you play more games and as you push it away, it’s human nature to adapt and overcome.”
Goodbye, for a while
Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers is the last at PPG Paints Arena until Jan. 28. The team leaves Wednesday for a five-game road trip to California, Arizona and Las Vegas before the All-Star break.
Meanwhile, left wing Tanner Pearson gets another chance Saturday to confront his former teammates with the Los Angeles Kings.
“It’s going to be weird (playing on the other team), spending so much time there the past six years,” he said. “It was pretty much, for sure, my second home. At the same time, it’s going to be cool to go back there.”
Pearson, who won a Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2014, was traded to the Penguins on Nov. 14. Almost immediately, he scored goals in three consecutive home games Nov. 19-24 after recording only one assist in 17 games this season with the Kings.
Then, on Dec. 15 at PPG, he stole the puck from former Kings teammate and two-time Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty and scored an unassisted goal on a good friend, goalie Jonathan Quick.
“I ran into Quickie after the game,” Pearson said. “He said a few choice words to me, all in good fun.
“I made a lot of great friendships over the years there, friends that I’ll be with for a lifetime, especially going through what we did. It means a lot.”
Asked if he’s adapted to his new surroundings, Pearson said, “You could have asked me that after a week and a half and I would have said, ‘Yeah.’ When I came here, the guys were great.
“We went on the road right away, and I went to dinner with the guys every night, getting to know them, which made it a lot easier.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.