Here are the 3 biggest takeaways from the Penguins' Wednesday afternoon practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex…
1. Hunwick takes "significant step"
Matt Hunwick rejoined his teammates for practice after being kept off the ice for a number of days. It was a different course of action taken by the team's medical staff as the defenseman recovers from a concussion that has kept him out of the lineup for the past 14 games.
"He's making progress," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "He was cleared to practice today and that's a big step for him. We'll see how he reacts to today's practice, but certainly that's a significant step, he's that much closer."
He added that Hunwick will travel with the team to Ottawa and was not ruled out for Thursday's game. Hunwick is hopeful that taking a couple of days off have pushed him past the plateau he was at, saying he was pleased with how he felt.
"I think these things are always difficult not knowing what exactly the time table is going to be," he said. "At least that's behind me now and I feel good and I'm happy with today's workload, and we'll see how I feel later on."
2. "I thought they were our best line"
The coaches have been tweaking the lines constantly throughout the first quarter of the season, trying a number of different combinations.
One they've stuck with the past two games has been Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist flanking Riley Sheahan, and that trio was terrific in the Pens' 5-4 overtime win against Buffalo on Tuesday, as they combined for two even-strength goals.
"I thought they were our best line," Sullivan said. "Every time they were on the ice they were on the puck. They were relentless on the forecheck, they forced turnovers, they got a lot of pucks to the net, they placed on the inside. They did a lot of the things we're trying to establish with our full team."
What Sullivan meant by "placed on the inside" was that they generated high-quality scoring chances from the battle areas inside the dots and below the goal lines. They played hard, and that work ethic was personified by Hornqvist, who was a warrior out there and finished with a goal and two assists for his efforts.
When I asked Sheahan if he had ever played with anyone quite like Hornqvist, he smiled and shook his head.
"No, he's a dog," said Sheahan, who earned his 100th career NHL point with the assist on Hornqvist's tally. "He gets on the puck and he's hard to play against. He's physical, he backchecks hard, he's good in the D zone. He's a great two-way player and in the O-zone, he's always creating havoc in front of the net, so it's fun playing with him."
He was also complimentary of what Sheary's speed can create for their line.
"Offensively, he's amazing," Sheahan said. "He creates a lot of plays. He's a little smaller but in the corners he's strong on the puck and he's not scared to get in there. Definitely he's a lot of fun playing with as well."
In the first shift of overtime, Sheary was reunited with Sidney Crosby, and the captain set up the winger for the winner. It was Sheary's second goal of the game, and eighth on the season.
"I was pretty opportunistic last night, and the chances I got I was able to bear down and put them away," he said.
3. Sullivan's message
While the players were pleased with their pushback in Tuesday's game, recovering from 3-1 and 4-3 deficits to eventually win in overtime, they agreed it wasn't the prettiest game.
Their start was particularly rough, as they gave up a number of odd-man rushes and a handful of 2-on-1s in the first period-plus, and that's why they were chasing the game.
Because of that, the coaches' message to the players today was this: controlling what they can so they become harder to play against.
"We have to force teams to have to work extremely hard to get those high-quality type chances," Sullivan said. "It can't be because we have a lack of focus or discipline or concentration or whatever the term is you might want to use, where we become easier to play against because we don't manage the puck the right way or we don't stay on the right side of a puck battle or we don't change as smart. There's a number of ways you can become easy to play against. That was the message to our team today, is that we have to control those things more consistently in order for us to sustain results the way our expectation is."