On March 11, Zach Aston-Reese joined team practice for the first time since suffering a lower-body injury that had kept him out of the lineup for the past 12 games. All signs pointed to him returning to game action as early as the next day - where the Penguins were set to play the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena - and he was chomping at the bit to get back.
"I know this feeling all too well," Aston-Reese said before adding with a wry grin, "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."
Unfortunately for Aston-Reese, that feeling would continue for the next few months as the NHL instead pressed pause on its season the next day and required players to self-quarantine before the Return to Play plan was put into action.
"It sucked a lot, honestly, just to be sidelined again," said Aston-Reese, who's dealt with his fair share of injuries since joining the Penguins as a college free agent back in 2017. "But what sucks even more is that I was about to come back and feeling really good, then the season got cancelled."
Aston-Reese did make the most of the time off, quarantining with teammate Bryan Rust and getting an Italian greyhound puppy named Carl. But now that hockey is back, Aston-Reese is thrilled to be back on the ice and reunited with Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev on a line that has become a very important one for the Penguins.
"It feels really good to be back with those guys," Aston-Reese said with a smile. "It's been a while, but nothing has changed. Tans is still yelling at everyone and Teddy's still his same stoic self."
Video: Zach Aston-Reese following today's practice.
That line was first put together all the way back on Oct. 10, and right away, they had an immediate bond through shared backgrounds - all three guys played college hockey. Aston Reese at Northeastern, Blueger at Minnesota State-Mankato and Tanev at Providence (where he led the Friars to the NCAA championship in 2015).
"There's mutual friends and mutual stories and things that you've gone through," Aston-Reese said. "It's having that initial bond off the start is pretty big."
From there, the trio began to build chemistry and became comfortable with each other's styles and tendencies. While all three players bring different strengths - Aston-Reese is physical and courageous, Blueger is conscientious and smart while Tanev is fast and tenacious - they have a shared understanding of how they need to play in order to be successful.
Simply put, they have a distinct identity as a whole - a momentum line that's hard to play against, strong defensively and chips in offensively when they get the chance.
"I think when we're at our best we're supporting each other all over the ice," Blueger said. "We're hard to play against, we're reliable defensively and we're working and making good decisions, supporting each other in the offensive zone. I think we create chances and contribute on the offensive end as much as we can."
A running joke throughout the season was calling the trio Pittsburgh's "fourth line." While they tend to go in that order during the Penguins' line rushes, that's not at all how they're viewed by their coaches or teammates.
"They'd be the third line on a lot of teams in the NHL," assistant coach Mark Recchi said. "They're just a terrific line."
And the Penguins are likely going to rely on them to play a key role in Pittsburgh's pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
"The way (head coach Mike Sullivan) uses his lines, he really relies on that so-called fourth line to start a lot in the D-zone," Recchi said, pointing to how the coaching staff relied on Matt Cullen's lines during the back-to-back championship years, especially when he played with Tom Kuhnhackl and Eric Fehr in 2016.
"Sully really relies on those lines to play those really hard minutes, those hard shifts. It gives Geno and Sid a break and an opportunity to start in the offensive zone 80, 90 percent of the time, which is where we want them. They can play against any line; we can play them against anybody. Sully trusts them and he believes in them and they've earned that."
That trust and belief is shared between the three players, as another unique aspect of their line is how they hold each other accountable off the ice as well.
"I think we're pretty comfortable in holding each other accountable," Aston-Reese said. "Whether someone makes a bad play or something, just kind of letting them know and then just talking about it and kind of moving forward with it."
"I think we kind of rely on each other for that sometimes," Blueger agreed. "When one of us is maybe struggling, the other two guys pick that guy up."
While nothing is guaranteed moving forward, Aston-Reese, Blueger and Tanev have been practicing and playing together since the start of the Penguins' Phase 3 training camp - and they are doing everything they can to pick up where they left off.
"I think things have been going well so far in camp," Tanev said. "It's going back out there and building that confidence and that chemistry that we left off with before (Aston-Reese) was injured in the regular season. I think he's a great player and Teddy and I are excited to have him back if that's the case. You take it step by step, day by day and go out there and build that chemistry and confidence that was there previously in the regular season."