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Penguins/Red Wings Takeaways: Zohorna, Puustinen, Poulin stand out again in Detroit

It’s the same names lately that are showing out for the Pens, and more good nights for players like Radim Zohorna, Valtteri Puustinen and Sam Poulin

NHL: SEP 28 Preseason - Blackhawks at Red Wings Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On the road, the Penguins brought a lineup scarce on names but hungry with players looking to stand out this pre-season in Detroit.

The host Red Wings, on the other hand, were loaded to for bear based on the top two lines and defensively with a ton of NHL-caliber players for their home game.

Detroit got most of the first few shots of the game, but it was the Pens who opened the scoring. Valtteri Puustinen made a tremendous play from the back of the net and passed out to a wide open Radim Zohorna, who wasted no time sending a perfect shot to the top of the net.

Detroit kept up the pressure and tied the game in the first. Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic seemingly did the hard work to move the puck sharply from behind the net to Ryan Shea, but Shea coughed it up and eventually 2023-first round pick Nate Danielson was able to show his stuff and found the space to snap a shot by Nedeljkovic.

The Pens got sloppy in the second with Libor Hajek and Jonathan Gruden going to the penalty box. The Wings’ got a successful 5v3 power play practice when Dylan Larkin scorer from near the net to give Detroit a 2-1 lead.

Pittsburgh would tie the game with Zohorna returning the favor on the first goal with a nice pass over to Puustinen for a goal.

Detroit would quickly take the lead back with another power play goal where Nedeljkovic had no sight from traffic in front of his crease.

Sam Poulin made his presence known, first taking some pain when the Red Wings bloodied his nose and jersey, then scoring on the power play it generated with both nostrils plugged up to tie the game at 3.

In the third, Detroit pulled ahead again with a shot that deflected off a defender for the eventual game-winning goal.

Some random thoughts:

  • Zohorna has to be moving up the ranks if Kyle Dubas and Mike Sullivan are putting stock in exhibition game performances. Zorhona scored a goal for the second game in a row, added an assist and again was noticeably one of the Pens’ best players on the ice. Just how much the decision makers are truly moving names around the board based on the last week alone remains to be seen but the big fella is making a strong case for himself lately.
  • Similarly, Puustinen showed really well tonight. His offensive instincts and hands are so good, and was clinical with his assist and goal. Not sure what else he needs to do to get his name a little higher in the running to make the team production in the pre-season is nothing new for him, but seemingly having that translate into more opportunity has always been lacking. Maybe for plays like defensive lapses as seen on Detroit’s go-ahead goal in the third period.
  • Up to this point in camp the undrafted Avery Hayes has to be considered one of, if not THE biggest winner/pleasant surprise going in Pittsburgh’s camp. The 20-year old was a two-time 40 goal scorer in the OHL. He’s not big but moves around the ice well. Hayes played well enough in Buffalo in the Prospects Challenge to earn a bigger look and spot at the NHL camp. He was talked about fondly by Sullivan in his presser today. Granted, this is not making a move to compete for an NHL spot but a “out of no where into the organization’s plans” type of leveling up — but players in that boat have to start somewhere. Hayes was the only undrafted/unsigned player in the lineup for this game (save the veteran PTO candidates), and on the second line to boot and for his second game of the pre-season. All of those things add up to show just what kind of attention the kid has brought on himself.
  • Nedeljkovic totally robbed Andrew Copp with a point-blank chance from in tight in the first period. He was under onslaught for much of the game given the discrepancy in lineups yet was able to perform well. There will be a big spotlight on Nedeljkovic in the backup role over the course of the year and he acquitted himself with a strong performance - judging just off the shots and goals allowed isn’t a nuanced evaluation of how he played. Playing the scheduled full 60 minutes in this game as the team starts gearing him up for the regular season was more important.
  • Nedeljkovic LOVES to skate out and play the puck whenever possible. Looks pretty good at that trait too, which should help the NHL defenders.
  • In this exhibition atmosphere with lineups of variable skill levels, little bursts will catch your eye and you realize “oh yeah, that guy is an NHL player”. P.O Joseph is doing it on any given shift with skating, decision making, puck moving, defending, you name it. Ty Smith? Well...not so much. Granted it’s foolish to put too much stock in a single performance this time of year (good or bad) and with little to work with for power plays or getting to move the puck this wasn’t a great environment for Smith to show the strong areas of his game. But it sure would be nice if he started showing some of those strengths at some point. An ill-advised shot attempt with no lane in the third by Smith was predictably blocked and turned into a 2-on-1 against that partner Mark Friedman had to bail the team out with a shot block. Just the mojo looks off for Smith right now.
  • On that note, tryout Libor Hajek was a lot more “Ty Smith” than “P.O Joseph” tonight. It costs nothing to bring in a PTO and see what they got and also receive the benefit of a body to help get through some early exhibition games, but can’t imagine he’s making much of a run for a job with the Pens (not that much different was expected).
  • In a note that means nothing beyond surface level, Rem Pitlick didn’t do himself any favors to pick No. 16 and draw an unintended but unavoidable comparison of not looking as good as the previous #16, Jason Zucker. Pitlick’s another player presumably competing for an NHL roster spot that also didn’t put a lot of great tape out there to make his case, disclaimer about ‘just one pre-season night’ aside.

Overall, this pre-season a lot of the same names are popping. Poulin, Zohorna, Puustinen. Not so much for some of the more veteran candidates in the mix (quiet night for Pitlick, Andreas Johnsson and Vinnie Hinostroza). One game is only one game, but as more data starts to trickle in about which players are standing out, it’s going to make for interesting debate and discussion for the Pens about what to do next.

We’ll get the first glimpse of that tomorrow back at practice. The Pens will be down to two teams and it will be fascinating to see how the splits and roles are assigned to slot these players in with the established stars as the team moves onward towards the