Teddy Blueger finds place on Penguins’ fourth line
Thursday’s season opener between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres involved some of the most voracious television markets for hockey in the United States.
Countless television set between Leetsdale and Lackawanna, N.Y., and several other towns, villages and hamlets along the corridors of Interstates 79 and 90, were tuned into the Sabres’ 3-1 win at PPG Paints Arena.
There was another market that might have had an even more ferocious appetite for the game.
The contest began a little bit after 7 p.m. Thursday, but it was well into Friday in the small Baltic country. Regardless, for a nation wildly passionate about hockey, this game was must-see TV as it featured a showdown of two of its best in Teddy Blueger of the Penguins and Zemgus Girgensons of the Sabres.
“I bet there’s going to be a lot of Latvians that are up at 2, 3 a.m. in the morning because of the time difference,” Girgensons said before the game. “It’s awesome for the hockey back home.”
For several years, Girgensons was the solitary torch-bearer for Latvian hockey in the NHL. Fans in Latvia virtually stuffed the online ballot box for the NHL’s All-Star Game in 2015 and voted the bottom-six forward into the contest. In the nearly 102 years the NHL has existed, only 23 Latvians have played in the league.
Today, Girgensons has some company in Blueger. A second-round pick by the Penguins in 2012, Blueger — known as Teodors Blugers in Latvia — made his NHL debut last season by appearing in 28 games and generating 10 points (six goals, four assists). For the first time in his career, he began a season in the NHL after being considered a long shot, or at best, a bubble player, to make the roster in previous training camps.
“It’s a bit different, obviously, being on the team right away,” Blueger said. “It’s good to be here right out of camp and just get started right away. Get into it and have more of a chance to show what I’ve got.”
Blueger sufficiently displayed what he had last season and earned a two-year contract with a salary cap hit of $750,000 as a restricted free agent this past offseason. With Matt Cullen’s retirement, the fourth-line center position was vacated for him to claim.
On Thursday, he primarily played between forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon. Logging 10 minutes, 19 seconds of ice time on 15 shifts, including 1:42 on the penalty kill, Blueger did not attempt a shot but was 7 for 13 (54%) on faceoffs.
“I think I ended up right around 50 percent,” Blueger said. “Not great. There was a couple times I’d win a couple in a row and couple of times I’d lose in a couple in a row. I was pretty streaky, I would say.”
Most of Blueger’s faceoffs came against Jack Eichel, Buffalo’s top center. Blueger lined up against Eichel six times and won three draws, including going 2 for 2 in the defensive zone. They logged 3:19 of common five-on-five ice time.
“We’re trying to cast him in a role here that’s really, really important to helping this team win,” Sullivan said. “For example, his line got some shifts against our opponent’s top line (Thursday) night. They got some defensive-zone starts where we put them in some disadvantageous positions, but that’s part of the role that they’re cast in.”
Even after last season’s success, Blueger admits maintaining confidence is a daily endeavor.
“Having that experience helps a lot,” Blueger, 25, said. “But it still fluctuates game to game regardless of how many games you have played. It kind of comes and goes, and you’ve got to battle through playing with a little less confidence. It definitely helps, but with that being said, I think it still fluctuates.”
Usually one of final players to leave the ice after a practice or morning skate, Blueger has a near-obsessive devotion to fine-tuning his game.
“His work ethic is unbelievable,” Girgensons said. “He’s a good worker.”
“He’s a tremendous player. He’s a good defensive player. Great on the draw, good on the (penalty kill). He’s a good all-around two-way player.”
In Friday’s practice at Cranberry, the fourth line was altered as Simon was promoted to the top line and replaced by Dominik Kahun. Regardless of who populates the fourth line, it is expected to generate some offense considering Aston-Reese, Blueger and Simon each have been first-liners with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
“I like playing with Teddy a lot,” Aston-Reese said. “I know we’re going to get at least one, two, three quality chances a game. It’s just a matter of converting on at least one of them. And if we can do that at least once a game, things are going to go well for us.”
Said Blueger: “If you look at most of the teams that are successful, all four lines chip in in some way or another. Regardless of what line you’re on, obviously you want to be good defensively and reliable and stuff. But you always want to go out there and score and create offense. It doesn’t matter what line you’re on, that’s always the goal.”
Fans in Ruffsdale as well as Riga would enjoy seeing that.
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .