Weekend Takeaways: Penguins’ depth keeping them alive after injuries

Zach Aston-Reese recorded two goals and one assist for a three-point night and the Pittsburgh Penguins throttled the Winnipeg Jets.

No shade at the actual NHLers skating beside Sidney Crosby, but have you ever played the game with your friends where you set an over/under on how many goals you’d score if you were just gifted 82 games to chug up and down big-league ice beside “Sid the Kid?”

Well, whatever the answer — he could probably bounce one or two off anyone, right? It would be less than the 14 goals Pittsburgh combined to put up on Saturday and Sunday as it tossed touchdowns in Minnesota and Winnipeg despite so many of the team’s key forwards are on the shelf. And while Crosby was certainly doing his thing — he and Kris Letang have each registered at least a point in all six games the Penguins have played this year — it was the bottom six of the forward crew that really stepped up.

Zach Aston-Reese had two goals and two assists in the two victories and Sam Lafferty certainly had himself a weekend, netting three goals and five points.

Lafferty — a rookie with all of four NHL games under his belt — has the same background as so many Penguins: a former NCAA player who was either selected in the later rounds of the NHL draft or not at all, logged time developing in the American Hockey League with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and, when given a shot some time in his early-to-mid 20s with the big club, made good.

Yes, the Penguins definitely have a type.

As the likes of Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad and, of course, Evgeni Malkin filter back into the lineup, some of the people helping keep the Penguins afloat right now will be squeezed to the sidelines. Still, the pool of dependable contributors Pittsburgh has developed is staggering, especially considering the club has a single player — Dominik Simon — who was drafted by the club since 2015 in the lineup right now.

We’re always wondering about the window to win closing in Pittsburgh, but there are a lot of hands — and not just the golden ones — trying to keep it pried open.

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Other Weekend Takeaways
• Ilya Samsonov’s early success with the Washington Capitals could become a fascinating subplot if it continues. The 22-year-old Russian rookie made 24 saves in a 4-1 win over the Dallas Stars on Saturday and is now 2-0-0 in his young NHL career with a .961 save percentage. At six-foot-three, the 22nd overall pick in 2015 has long been viewed as a top-level goalie prospect and appears to be making good on that potential after coming to North America last year to play in the American Hockey League. Franchise icon Braden Holtby is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and things suddenly get interesting. If Samsonov gets 30 starts and shines, could the up-against-it Caps roll the dice and turn the crease over to a sophomore who would still have one year left on his entry-level deal? It would be a gamble with enormous upside given the accomplished Holtby will be looking for a significant contract that takes him into his mid-30s.

• So we can all agree James Neal and his seven goals have earned him “Best Newcomer” status so far, but if he slows at all, he could be overtaken by Erik Haula. A shrewd off-season pickup by the Carolina Hurricanes from the Vegas Golden Knights, Haula has goals in five of the Canes’ six contests this year. The Finn was limited to 15 games last year after an excruciating knee injury, but Haula was William Karlsson’s light during Vegas’s inaugural season, putting up 29 goals to nearly double his previous career-best of 15.

• There was a lot of excitement on both sides of the Hudson River coming into this season after big summers for the Rangers and Devils. Any smiling at this point, though, is being done by the Blueshirts. The Rangers are off to a decent 2-1-0 start and while it may have come in a loss, Kaapo Kakko’s first NHL goal was a beauty.

The Devils, meanwhile, are winless in five outings, have a minus-14 goal differential and Jack Hughes — taken first overall last June, one spot ahead of Kakko — has yet to register a point.

• Speaking of second-overall picks, how about this one from the 1997 draft who got a stirring ovation in his return to San Jose on Sunday night — then went out registered his third point in two games with the Sharks.

Red and White Power Rankings
1. Edmonton Oilers (5-0-0) – The Oilers have trailed in every contest they’ve played so far, but still don’t have a loss to show for it.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs (3-2-1) – The team save percentage got a little better after Saturday’s 5-2 win over Detroit, but still sits at a gruesome .888.

3. Winnipeg Jets (4-3-0) — Nice point-per-game start to the year for Nikolaj Ehlers, who has two goals and five assists through seven outings.

4. Montreal Canadiens (2-1-2) – The Habs clamped down a bit during Saturday’s win over the defending-Cup champion Blues, but they’re still giving up a league-worst 36.4 shots against per game.

5. Vancouver Canucks (2-2-0) – Two wins in a row at home and Brock Boeser got off the schneid with his first of the year against Philly on Saturday.

6. Calgary Flames (2-2-1) – Just one regulation-time win so far for the Flames, who had a tough weekend with road losses in Vegas and San Jose.

7. Ottawa Senators (1-3-0) – Ottawa acquired Vladislav Namestnikov to help shield some of the team’s young players and he did way more than that in his second game with the club, notching two goals and three points versus Tampa Bay on Saturday as the Sens picked up their first win of the campaign.

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In Your Ear
In the most recent episode of Tape to Tape, co-host Rory Boylen and I were joined by Sportsnet’s Mark Spector to talk about James Neal’s hot start with the Oilers.

Oct. 9: Early worries and Edmonton’s bounce-back bet
October 09 2019

Look for the next episode on Wednesday.

The Week Ahead
• There’s a full slate of Monday afternoon games for Columbus Day in the U.S. and Thanksgiving in Canada, including a nice one in Boston where the Bruins host the surprising Anaheim Ducks. Three teams — New Jersey, Chicago and Minnesota — will all be seeking their first win of the season.

• Related: Shouldn’t Turkey Day in Canada be stuffed with all-Canadian matchups?

• The Battle of Cole Harbour goes Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, when Nathan MacKinnon and the 4-0-0 Avs visit Crosby and the Pens. How about Cale Makar making his early Calder case with five assists on the year?

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