Tim Benz: Zach Aston-Reese looks like best fit on Evgeni Malkin’s left wing
After the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the New York Rangers on Sunday afternoon, Zach Aston-Reese made a prediction.
“When NHL Network is playing its top 100 goals of the season, I’ll be on it for sure,” Aston-Reese declared.
He’s right. He will be.
I mean, he’s not the one who scored the goal in question. He’ll be in the highlights anyway, though.
It was Evgeni Malkin who actually put the puck in the net. A dazzling backhander that wrapped around 6-foot, 5-inch Kevin Hayes and surprised New York goalie Alexandar Georgiev.
Top 100? For sure. Maybe top 10.
That gave the Pens a 6-3 lead in the third period. They held on to win 6-5.
The reason Aston-Reese will see himself in the highlight is because of what he did to make the goal happen.
He beat Rangers defenseman Adam McQuaid along the left-wing boards and then put a tape-to-tape pass onto Malkin’s stick. That allowed him to calm down the puck and get the proper torque on his backhand to zip the shot past Georgiev.
What the clip doesn’t pick up early enough is how Aston-Reese was able to charge into the zone after passing the puck to himself a moment earlier.
“Playing with (Malkin), he’s really loud when he wants the puck,” Aston-Reese said. “I heard him coming down late. I just put it in a spot for him. And you guys saw the finish. He took care of the rest.”
Aston-Reese was installed as the left wing on a line with Malkin and Phil Kessel during the game. He started the afternoon with Matt Cullen and Dominik Simon. In a perfect world, though, Aston-Reese should be the third wheel with Malkin and Kessel full-time.
It’s a threesome that has had success at times over the last two years. However, the Pens lost Aston-Reese with a broken jaw in the playoffs last spring. And he was injured again for more than a month this year following an on-ice fight in Florida. So the trio never has gained much of a sense of permanence.
Now that Aston-Reese has been back for three games, it’s time coach Mike Sullivan gives that unit a long look.
“I’m not sure how much trust is there,” Aston-Reese said when asked if a long-term promotion is looming. “But to be able to play with those two would be nice. If I’m given that opportunity come Tuesday against the Devils, I’m going to do my best to take advantage of it and stay in that spot.”
There are many reasons such an alignment makes sense. At 6-feet, 204 pounds, Aston-Reese has some offensive skill. But he plays a simple, physical game that also is defensively responsible. That complements the creativity and offensive risk-taking employed by Kessel and Malkin. Also, putting Aston-Reese on the left side allows Kessel to move to his more comfortable right-wing position.
“Phil has that signature shot coming down on his strong side,” Aston-Reese said. “I like to work hard defensively. It’s definitely nice to balance out those two. They are more offensive minded.”
Another benefit to elevating Aston-Reese may be to avoid overexposing Nick Bjugstad. It’s likely best to allow Bjugstad to be a third-line center, seemingly the original intent of his acquisition. Sullivan said he made the adjustment because the Kessel-Malkin-Bjugstad combination wasn’t maintaining enough offensive-zone time.
“We think Zach is playing extremely well,” Sullivan said. “He is getting better and better with every game since coming off his injury. It ended up working out for the line. I thought they had a real good third period.”
As Aston-Reese pointed out, “it wasn’t even one half of one game.” And sometimes Sullivan’s line combinations are only as stable as the most recent shift.
But there’s reason to believe Aston-Reese joining Kessel and Malkin could become more entrenched than that.