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The Drew O’Connor train keeps rolling in Detroit

Pittsburgh loses 4-2 in Detroit, but Drew O’Connor scores again

Pittsburgh Penguins v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Penguins lost 4-2 in Detroit on Thursday in a preseason game. The goal scorers were notable performers for coach Mike Sullivan.

Drew O’Connor now has three goals in his last two games, after notching a goal tonight against the Red Wings. O’Connor has certainly been the player whose star has been on the rise the most for Pittsburgh this training camp, having improved his skating and speed and showing a knack for creating offense while playing center or wing.

Also getting on the board was another bubble player for the roster in Simon, who tucked in a breakaway goal.

“I thought Drew O’Connor had another strong game,” Sullivan said after the game. “I think his two-way game is really developed. It’s come a long way. He’s playing with a lot more confidence. We utilized him on the power play tonight. We had him killing with Brian Boyle, I thought he did a good job on the kill as well. Those are two guys, for me, that I thought had pretty good games.”

O’Connor played tonight on the left wing, with Boyle as his center after O’Connor has been working in the middle the past few days. That could very well be coming into focus as the main parts of the starting fourth line, with potentially Danton Heinen if the Pens get Zach Aston-Reese and Jake Guentzel back from their respective COVID diagnoses in time to play.

Before tonight’s game, Sullivan noted how young this lineup was, with not too many top-end players getting in the action tonight.

“We’ve got a young lineup in tonight, Sullivan said. “It’s going to give guys an opportunity again to show themselves and put their best effort on the ice, and we’ll evaluate after tonight.”

After a game like this, the stock has to be pointing way up for O’Connor, and Simon to an extent. Other bubble players like Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello didn’t make much of a case in this game for themselves.

With only one more preseason game to go on Saturday night at Columbus, the Pens’ next roster might be very well be close to a dress rehearsal for their regular season opener coming up on Tuesday against Tampa.

Some other thoughts on the game:

  • Radim Zohorna centered what was listed as, and in essence was the first line, but he only played 13:44. Boyle played 18 minutes. Jonathan Gruden, who was called up today from the minors just for this game, played 13:10. Just how the Pens want to fill that second line center job seems very much up in the air, given that Zohorna has not been given much on his plate in preseason games, with much talk about his conditioning and pace for the play of the NHL game. Will this mean Evan Rodrigues gets slotted back between Jason Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen? Or Zohorna gets the nod in a low TOI role? A lot is up for consideration based on usage to this point.
  • Speaking of Boyle, it wouldn’t be any shock to see him get back in the game on Saturday and possibly be signed soon after, if it doesn’t come tomorrow. The team needs able-bodied centers at the moment and Boyle is a veteran player who is trusted to kill penalties. He did everything he needed to in this game and over the past few weeks to earn a spot for the start of the year.
  • Similarly, a lot is probably up in the air or tentative on the health/availability of Aston-Reese and Guentzel, but it’s tough to draw up a roster without Dominik Simon right now. Simon’s easily out-shined bottom of the roster rivals like Lafferty, Angello and Poulin. If COVID prevents one of the healthy forwards from starting the year, Simon may well find himself in the opening night playing lineup. He’s always found a way to cling on and stay in Sullivan’s good graces, and a strong exhibition schedule has only reinforced that belief the coach has in the player.
  • Mark Friedman, who got bumped around a bit on Tuesday, traveled with the team but was a healthy scratch as the Pens went with an unusual setup of only two right-handed defenders and four lefties. What this might mean for the future remains to be seen, but at this point it looks like the sixth lineup spot for the start of the season could be between Chad Ruhwedel (likely) or Juuso Riikola, who played on his off-side tonight. Ruhwedel played over six more minutes than Riikola in this game.
  • Much like Simon has been a survivor, it seems possible that Riikola could stick on the 23-player roster if the team elects to keep eight defensemen. Evgeni Malkin out for two months means LTIR to start the season, so salary constraints aren’t a short-term issue. However keeping eight defense might be, considering that two forwards have COVID and might not need IR and take up a spot on the 23. It’s a tricky puzzle to figure out, but Riikola’s chances to stay in Pittsburgh now look a lot better than they seemed even two or three weeks ago.
  • If a player like O’Connor has risen in the final days of camp, a player who has fallen appears to be Pierre-Olivier Joseph. Joseph didn’t look that comfortable tonight and didn’t play a very clean game. With so many other defensemen on the team, it looks like Joseph will be a victim of the numbers game to allow him to continue to develop his game in Wilkes-Barre for the beginning of the season.
  • The three lowest TOI players tonight: Filip Hallander, Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare. All have the possibility for bright futures in the NHL, but that future isn’t going to start next week for any of them.
  • The Pens were outshot 37-24 tonight, against a stronger Detroit roster. Casey DeSmith stopped 33/36, with an empty netter tacked on. Pittsburgh’s plan looks to be starting Tristan Jarry on Saturday night, and then the door is open for Jarry to begin the season as the team’s starting goalie.
  • Louis Domingue, the veteran who served as the backup tonight, was placed on waivers today. If he clears tomorrow, as expected, he will be Wilkes-Barre bound.

One more preseason game to go, which will finish out the training camp and then the impending roster cuts loom as the team looks to shake down under the limits and move ahead with the regular season.