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Preseason takeaways: Penguins vs. Columbus

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Olli Maatta scores a late goal and the Pens win 4-3, here’s what we thought of the game

NHL: Preseason-Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins completed their third preseason game on Friday night, winning 4-3 in Columbus. Results don’t really matter but individuals have a lot to prove as they fight for positioning within the organization, and here’s what is buzzing tonight.

Maatta stepping up in the o-zone again

Last game he played, we credited the mindset and aggressiveness of Olli Maatta when he presses in the offensive zone, steps into the play and trusts instincts. He did it a lot early in his career and put up good numbers. He hasn’t done it a lot in recent years and hasn’t looked as sharp. Nice to see him do it again tonight.

Big picture, Maatta has been paired consistently with Matt Hunwick in camp. Those two seem to be working well, which is awesome because it means the Pens can roll with Dumoulin-Letang as a beast top pairing and have Cole-Schultz to feast on the zone starts. With a lot of the forward groups unsettled and sure to switch up a lot, they will have a very strong defensive base to lean on provided that all can stay healthy.

Niemi maybe too in the zone

Don’t really want to see this, but ok

Antti Niemi looks like a hungry goalie, stopping 31/34 in the win and 22/23 in the first two periods. If he can replicate this every time he’s called on, the team is likely in fine shape for a backup goalie. Hopefully he keeps the glove on, though.

ZAR city

Zach Aston-Reese is getting a chance, and with a job wide open on the second line left wing, he’s proving to be an impactful forward in game action. From the Trib’s gamer:

Aston-Reese sent a soft back-hander on net that reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky bobbled, and Sprong whacked in in the second. Aston-Reese scored on a deflected wrister from the left half-wall in the third.

It’s been mentioned before that ZAR is on a Chris Kunitz-like trajectory. An undrafted but hard-working winger who has some skill, a knack for scoring and being “hard on the puck” all around the ice. Aston-Reese obviously has a long way to go before he’s a multiple 60-point a year guy in the NHL, but for now he’s showcasing good reason to be right in the mix for an NHL job in his first professional season.

Centers everywhere

The biggest storyline for the Pens preseason is clearly what they are going to do to round out their center positions behind Crosby and Malkin. And it’s no coincidence that the centers in the game tonight were preseason standouts Greg McKegg and Adam Johnson, joined by PTO Jay McClement and Teddy Blueger. Other than Carter Rowney that’s shaping up to be all the internal candidates to make the team.

Blueger probably had the best moment displaying the vision he’s known for as a playmaking center with his assist on the night. Blueger also did the best winning 6/7 faceoffs with McClement behind him at 63%, McKegg at 57% and Johnson at 40%. For what it’s worth though, Blueger got at least 3 less minutes of play than all of them. This battle is a long way from over, but for a single game snapshot it had to have been an impressive night for the Pens 2012 second round pick in Blueger.

Pouliot remains a lightning rod

One of the worst kept secrets right now is the impending trade with Detroit that looks to be a matter of time for center Riley Sheahan to join the Pens in exchange for Derrick Pouliot. As typical for his on-ice performance you could find some good and some bad again in Pouliot’s play

The gaffe mentioned was losing possession of a puck and having to take a penalty on the backcheck to prevent a goal. Never a good look, but it happens sometimes.

It’s impossible to know how the coaches and management really feels about Pouliot and what his future would be in Pittsburgh, but based off this one game look, it’s difficult to imagine anything would change one way or another from whatever position they were already in.

***

At the end of the day, Pittsburgh didn’t bring that many key players to the game, no one got injured and some younger guys like ZAR, Daniel Sprong and Blueger did well. Vets like Niemi and Maatta put more evidence in the bank that they will have good seasons. All in all, a positive night for the Pens as they take another step in the preseason process and march onward to the grind of the regular season.