Thursday night’s matchup will not be Ben Lovejoy
’s first go-around in the National Hockey League. It will also not be the first time he has suited up against the New Jersey Devils in a regular-season game.
Lovejoy spent two games with the Penguins last season, making his debut against the Buffalo Sabres at Mellon Arena on Dec. 8 and dressing versus the Devils at Prudential Center two nights later. He acquainted himself well, posting an even rating while averaging just over 11 minutes of ice time. With that experience under his belt, Lovejoy expects more from his performance in his second go-around.
“Last year, coming in, it was my first time in the NHL and first time in Pittsburgh,” Lovejoy said. “It is nerve-racking. I didn’t know the (previous) coaching staff all that well at the time. You are incredibly nervous and you want to play really well.”
Lovejoy said his two-game stint with the Penguins combined with the month he spent practicing with the big squad during the postseason as a member of the “Black Aces,” a taxi-squad of extra players, allowed him to become familiar with everything that goes with being a professional – both on and off the ice.
“I was able to go through the playoff run where I was here for a month and got to know the surroundings, got to know the city, the behind the scenes here in the locker room and got to know the guys on a personal level as well. You always feel better when you do know people.”
It also helps Lovejoy feel better that he better knows what to expect at the highest level from a role standpoint. Always one of his teams’ top options in all situations at the college and American League ranks, Lovejoy is still learning the game at the NHL level, something he has experienced through the course of his two-plus professional seasons.
My first year was a huge learning experience. I had a lot to learn about the pro game. Last year I went back to camp with more confidence and when I did get called up it really opens your eyes to figure out what type of player you need to be at the NHL level. - Alex Goligoski
“My first year was a huge learning experience. I had a lot to learn about the pro game. Last year I went back to camp with more confidence and when I did get called up it really opens your eyes to figure out what type of player you need to be at the NHL level.
“Sometimes in past years I tried being an offensive guy and you try different roles. When I was up in the NHL you find out what your role is going to be here and then you need to go back into the AHL and work on that role. I really feel like my time the second half of last year and the first seven games this year has been a huge help to me.”
Head coach Dan Bylsma believes that even with this being only Lovejoy’s third NHL game, the 25-year-old can step right into the Penguins’ lineup and contribute, much the same way Deryk Engelland
, Lovejoy’s partner this season at WBS, did on Tuesday night in Boston.
“Those guys have been playing the same systems and same drills in practice for the most part for two and three years now,” Bylsma said. “There are not a lot of new things for them. There are not a lot of keep it simple and we will figure out in four or five games what we expect from them.
“They know exactly how to play and what we are talking about in terms of how we want to play, the words we use and the drills we use. I am comfortable with both those guys today knowing exactly what is expected of them out on the ice.”
Such familiarity helps Bylsma know what to expect from Lovejoy each time he sends him over the boards.
“Ben is a good skating defenseman. He can defend very well against the rush with his skating ability. He has a very good stick.”
With three of their top six defenders currently on the shelf, including proven point men on the power play in Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang
, Bylsma expects the Penguins to take advantage of Lovejoy’s skating skills and use him on the point during the man-advantage.
“Ben is a guy who did get some first power-play time and was a second power-play guy for sure. With his skating ability and his ability to shoot the puck from back at the point he is definitely a guy we can use back there. Hopefully he gets eased into it or pushed back there, one of the two, getting back there tonight.”
Lovejoy, who arrived in Pittsburgh via town car at 11:45 p.m. last night, says he will be more than happy to help a power-play unit hoping to get back on track following a mini-slump.
“We haven’t spoken about it but if I am (used on the power play) then I am out there to get the puck to the skilled players,” Lovejoy said. “My job on the power play during my professional career has been just to get pucks to the net. I am not going to be up top toe-dragging people. I am going to be making passes and hopefully floating and firing pucks on net to allow guys to go for rebounds.”