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Penguins vs Blue Jackets Preview: Sprong’s last stand?

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The Pens return home to face the Columbus Blue Jackets

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After losing 2-1 in overtime last night in Boston, the Penguins return home for a game against the Metropolitan division leading Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus played a game last night themselves (beating Toronto 4-2) and also had to travel so both teams should be about on equal footing in that regard.

One constant storyline this season has been the trials and tribulations that Daniel Sprong has been through, and put Pens’ fans through. The highly touted prospect has had several stops and starts and hasn’t gotten on track.

An item often cited (and correctly so) is that Pittsburgh has an overage of right wing talent as it is. There’s an all-world player in Phil Kessel, a surefire 25 goal/50point-ish buzzsaw of energy in Patric Hornqvist. And the motor of Bryan Rust. It’s been tough for Sprong to earn anything more than a 4th line role.

Lately, Sprong hasn’t been getting that - he’s basically been a healthy scratch and 13th forward for the Pens. Luckily for him, there’s been recent injuries to players like Matt Cullen and Sidney Crosby have opened up an extra spot in the lineup. Sprong’s been able to play because of that.

Last night Sprong was in the lineup due to an injury suffered by Derek Grant. It didn’t go well, with Sprong making a positional mistake defensively which led to a goal against. He was benched for the rest of the game. This hasn’t been the first time this season an opponent should have been covered tighter by Sprong and ended up scoring a goal.

In the offensive zone, Sprong has struggled to develop his own shot. He only has 16 shots on goal in the 15 games he’s played this season. To put that in perspective, Sprong fired 22 SOG in just eight NHL games last year. He even got 23 SOG in 18 games back in 2015-16, when he played as an 18-year old in the NHL in a limited role, so his lack of opportunity/quality linemates can’t be the only reason for this. Sprong has not progressed and has arguably shown signs of regression.

To make matters worse, the areas on the ice Sprong is shooting from is not conducive to score goals at the NHL level. The few times he is shooting, his average shot distance in 2018-19 is a preposterously high 36.4 feet away from the net.

To put that in perspective with guys on the team that actually do score goals; Hornqvist is at 28 feet out for his average shot this season. Crosby is at 24.5. Jake Guentzel and Evgeni Malkin are both at 26.8 feet. Phil Kessel shoots the most from the outside at 33.7 feet. No one minds because he has 10 goals on the season.

However, the very issue that’s hindered Sprong, could offer an opportunity tonight. Hornqvist missed the whole third period after going into the boards hard last night from a heavy hit. For a guy like him to get knocked out of the game, one would think it might be a serious enough issue to not be able to play the following night. Rust also got his legs tangled up with an opponent as regulation was expiring. We’ll see if he can shake that off.

Should both of those two players be out, coach Mike Sullivan might have no chance but to play Sprong in the literal sense that there’s no other option. The Pens will surely load up ice time for their top players, not like Sprong is playing 17+ minutes tonight under just about any scenario, but the chance to take regular shifts with skill players might just materialize by injury.

The Pens cancelled their morning skate, and Sullivan isn’t speaking to the media until 5PM, so there probably won’t be much concrete information to then, if there even is at that point. As of 11:30 AM, the team hasn’t recalled anyone, which could suggest that Hornqvist and/or Rust are OK to play. Grant’s availability remains an unknown as well, there’s always the possibility he could sub back in and knock Sprong out from the lineup totally.

A lot still is up in the air with Daniel Sprong. He’s made some mistakes defensively this season, and aside from a few early season assists he’s been unable to really get anything going offensively (albeit in very limited looks and chances). Ideally most were hoping Sprong could grow with the team and force himself into more ice-time by generating and scoring goals.

That hasn’t happened, and he’s going to have to make an effort to get more shots and in tighter to the net if he gets the chance again. Depending on the injury status of Hornqvist and Rust, that latest “one best, last chance” for Sprong could be tonight. As always, all eyes in Penguins nation will be analyzing his every move and hoping for something good to happen.