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3 Things: Aston-Reese practices, Sullivan talks with Letang and more

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Here are the 3 biggest takeaways from the Penguins' Wednesday afternoon practice at Nationwide Arena…

1. Aston-Reese returns to practice

Forward Zach Aston-Reese joined team practice for the first time since suffering a lower-body injury that has kept him out of the lineup for the past 12 games.

"It feels good," Aston-Reese said before adding with a wry grin, "I know this feeling all too well. Almost like you're being in prison a little bit. Kind of isolated from everyone. It's just nice to be back. It's been pretty lonely."

Aston-Reese did not travel with the team for the first game of this three-game road trip, which was on Tuesday in New Jersey. He was excited to get the news that he would be joining the team in Columbus. 

The 25-year-old wore a regular yellow jersey, and Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan confirmed that he was a full participant in practice.

"This is still all part of the rehab process, just joining the team and going through a practice," he said. "Just kind of day-by-day right now.

Aston-Reese has had some bad luck with injuries throughout his young career, especially in the second half of the 2018-19 season. He seemed to be taking a step forward in that regard this year, dressing in Pittsburgh's first 57 games before getting hurt on Feb. 16 versus Detroit. 

According to Aston-Reese, this recovery process is different than the one he dealt with after getting hurt on March 10 of last year.

"It's a little different from last year's injury," he said. "I feel like I got on the ice a lot quicker this time and I've been working with (skills coach) Ty Hennes pretty hard and with (strength and conditioning coach Alex Trinca) in the weight room. We've been hitting it pretty hard. I felt good today and this whole week skating with Ty felt pretty good.

"As much as it sucks it's also nice because I get to work on different parts of my game and spent a lot of time working on my skating and refining some things.

The biggest lesson Aston-Reese learned from his experiences last year was not to go lightly in the weight room.

"Last year I had to come back right for playoffs and it was just another gear," he said. "I don't think I was fully prepared for that. This time around, just having conversations with the trainers and Ty, I was just trying to push myself every day as hard as I could. I feel like I'm in pretty good shape right now."

Defenseman John Marino was the only expected player missing from the skate, and Sullivan confirmed it was a maintenance day.

2. Sullivan talks with Letang

In Tuesday's 5-2 win over New Jersey, Kris Letang took an ill-advised slashing penalty that resulted in the Devils having a 5-on-3 power play for 1:42 minutes that the Penguins killed off. 

After the game, Sullivan said he hadn't had a conversation with Letang about the play yet, "but we probably will." And today, Sullivan confirmed they did have that conversation.

"What I will tell you is that I really didn't have to say a lot to Tanger today," Sullivan said. "He took responsibility and took ownership. He knows that he has to make a better decision in that situation. We'll move by it and look to the next game here."

Letang gave credit to his teammates for getting the job done and helping bail him out.

"You don't want to take a penalty there," Letang said. "I was pretty happy that we were able to kill that 5-on-3."

"It happens," Justin Schultz said. "Guys are more than happy to kill those off for each other and we were able to do that."

3. Schultz has his best game of the season

Schultz received the firefighter's helmet after Tuesday's victory, and deservedly so.

"That might have been Justin Schultz's best game," Sullivan said.

It started with Schultz scoring his first goal since Nov. 15 to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead. As his BFF Brian Dumoulin said, it was a big tally both for the team and for Schultz personally.

"He's been having a lot of chances and playing really well, the puck just hasn't gone in for him," Dumoulin said. "It's good to see him score that one, it was a beautiful goal. At the time it was a huge goal for us. I was definitely very excited to see him score that goal at that time."

The best part about the goal was that it all started with him being strong defensively and making a smart play in his own zone to send his teammates the other way.

"I don't know what it is, but when you put it in, you just get a little bit of confidence from that," Schultz said. "Obviously was struggling to find it, but I think for me, just playing strong defensively will lead to opportunities for me and obviously help the team win."

Schultz is also getting opportunities offensively on the first power-play unit. The Penguins tend to rotate him and Letang in that spot, and right now, with Schultz having recently missed a good chunk of time due to injury, he's got the fresher legs. He's also got the shoot-first mentality. 

"That's one of the things we really like about Schultzy," Sullivan said. "When he's up top he's eager to shoot the puck, he gets pucks to the net. And we think with our power play in particular we're trying to simplify the process and get more pucks to the net, and I think Schultzy is pretty good at that."

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