The Penguins defeated the Sabres, 5-3, in their third and final game of the 2017 Prospects Challenge at HARBORCenter in Buffalo on Monday. Pittsburgh won the tournament with a record of 2-0-1, as they lost in overtime to the Bruins, 3-2, on Friday before beating the Devils, 6-2, on Saturday.
Thoughts, musings and observations from the weekend…
- Overall, what stood out the most about the Penguins this weekend was the pace they played with. And that's encouraging to see heading into training camp later this week, because they're going to need that to continue when they get to Pittsburgh. Their starts in particular were impressive, as these kids were flying from the drop of the puck. "Every game here we had really good first periods," WBS head coach Clark Donatelli said. "We want to get off to a good start, be ready to go. We want to play fast, we want to get the puck up."
- I think the player most people were looking forward to seeing was Daniel Sprong, especially with how he performed after returning to his junior team in January once he healed from offseason shoulder surgery - scoring 32 goals in 31 games for Charlottetown in the QMJHL. What stood out to me the most about his game was how he didn't hesitate to use that incredible release of his, especially in the last game. The Penguins tracked his shot attempts and he ended up with 20 against the Sabres, 15 of those hitting the net. That's exactly what management and the coaches want to see from Sprong. "I'm glad to see he's shooting, because that's what he does," Donatelli said. "He's a dynamic player and he's a game changer, and he's definitely got a great shot. We want him shooting the puck."
- It's been a process for Sprong, who made Pittsburgh's roster out of training camp his draft year, played 18 games before returning to Charlottetown, returned that spring to skate with WBS in the playoffs, got hurt while practicing with the Black Aces, and spent months rehabbing before re-joining the Islanders, where he tore up the QMJHL. Ever since, he's been talking a lot about wanting to show maturity and how he's developed a lot in that way since he was 18. The Penguins know what he can bring offensively, but defensively, he wanted to show that he's more responsible. He accomplished that this weekend, at least. "Defensively, I thought he played well," Donatelli said. "He was strong on the wall. We all know he can shoot the puck and score goals. That's going to happen. The rest of his game that he's been working hard on - he showed up in shape, he's working hard off the ice - he's doing all the right things." Donatelli went on to add that he was really proud of Sprong.
- Another name that had people excited was Zach Aston-Reese. While the winger didn't dominate the scoresheet, what did stand out was his toughness. He dropped the gloves in Saturday's game against New Jersey for Pittsburgh's first and only fight of the tournament, and won decisively. Then on Sunday, when two Sabres players started taking liberties with Sprong, Aston-Reese came right to the defense of his teammate without hesitation. Pens assistant GM Bill Guerin called Aston-Reese an honest, hard-playing player, and we saw that this weekend. We didn't see the scoring touch that he developed in college, leading the NCAA his senior year with 31 goals, but I think he'll thrive in training camp playing alongside guys who can get him the puck in the dirty areas around the net.
- I remember heading into last year's rookie tournament, former Pens associate GM Jason Botterill - now GM of the Sabres - singled out two players he was particularly excited about. One was Jake Guentzel, and that's no surprise. The other was Teddy Blueger, who had also joined WBS out of college and stood out with his professionalism. After this weekend, it's not just Botterill singing Blueger's praises. Blueger, who was named captain for the weekend by the coaches, was arguably the Pens' best overall player. It just felt like Pittsburgh's 2012 second round pick was on another level with how he thought and saw the game. As I wrote the other day, Blueger isn't the fastest skater, but he's one of the smartest, and uses his hockey IQ to make sure he's always in the right position and making the right play. Plus, he worked hard this summer to add half a step to his skating. He played in all situations, taking most faceoffs while playing both PP and PK, and showed that two-way ability Donatelli loves. After a strong performance this weekend, Blueger is feeling good heading into main camp and I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing him get time in the third or fourth-line center role.
- I was especially impressed with Thomas Di Pauli, who scored twice on the weekend. Speed is so important for Penguins players, especially the wingers, and he has that. How he accelerates up the ice is fun to watch, and how he protects the puck along the way is something special. After being limited to just 21 games last year with various injuries, the winger is healthy and feeling, as he puts it, "fantastic." And it shows, as the kid can't stop smiling and just looks like he's having a blast. I would love to see him get time on a line with his former Notre Dame teammate Bryan Rust at training camp this week, as they're similar players and could really fly alongside a guy like Evgeni Malkin.
- All of the names I just mentioned are ones Pens fans are familiar with. One that they probably don't know, but should after this tournament, is Jordy Bellerive. The youngest player on the Pens roster led the team in scoring with four goals and an assist in three games, including a hat trick against the Devils. Currently playing for Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League, Bellerive went undrafted this summer. He was invited to Pens development camp and the Prospects Challenge, where he's used the motivation of not hearing his name called to leave an impression. I'm sure this won't be the last we see of Bellerive.