Analysis: Penguins forward Drew O’Connor finds out how to use his height

Empty thoughts on the Penguins’ 7-1 win over the Maple Leafs:

With seemingly a center of score sidelined due to various medical issues, the Penguins elevated rookie Drew O’Connor to the second line on Saturday and he responded with two goals.

On each occasion, he used his sturdy 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame to create them.

“A lot of it is just fighting in front of the net, using your body,” O’Connor said. “It’s not something that maybe I didn’t do so well in the last game. So I tried to focus on it a bit. I’m just trying to take the guys out, have some space in front of the net and use my body.

With the opening goal, which was also the first goal of the game, O’Connor literally scored it with his body. After defenseman Marcus Pettersson circled the puck in the left point, he threw a wrist to the goal as O’Connor faced Maple Leafs forward David Kampf for position over the paddock.

On the arrival of the puck, O’Connor twisted his bottom towards the puck and allowed him to strike his left hip, causing a deflection in front of goaltender blocker Jack Campbell.

(After the match, O’Connor admitted to using this maneuver in part to protect his left hand after losing his glove moments earlier.)

On the Penguins’ fifth goal, O’Connor used his physical tools again, albeit in a different way.

Sending the left wing into the offensive zone, he again used that big frame to protect the puck from a backcheck from Maple Leafs forward Alexander Kerfoot. A lucky rebound from a failed pass attempt ended up in the net thanks to the left skate of former Penguins defensive prospect Jake Muzzin.

It was a random goal, but it wouldn’t have happened if O’Connor hadn’t known how to effectively take out the backchecker.

Such a sight was quite rare for O’Connor during the 2020-21 season when he appeared in 10 NHL games.

At least that’s what his career statistics indicate. To the naked eye, O’Connor was pretty much invisible during his brief cup of coffee last season.

And it was understandable. After pulling him out of Dartmouth in March 2020, the Penguins kind of sent him to the NHL during training camp in January 2020 and probably rushed him a bit.

At his height, he could weave his way around predominantly smaller and younger opponents at the NCAA level. But in the NHL? It’s a whole different challenge facing adult men who know all the tricks of the trade when it comes to positioning.

After appearing completely lost in NHL action last season, he received a much needed refinement with Wilkes-Barre / Scranton and was productive in the AHL, amassing 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 20 games. at this level.

With the advantage of a real offseason, he added speed and secured an NHL berth with a solid training camp earlier this month.

On Tuesday, he was the center of the Penguins’ second line and dominated thoroughly using just his natural gifts, namely his size, in an efficient manner.

“Drew is becoming a very good player,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “His size, his skating ability and his instincts are, I think, encouraging. He is still learning every day. Its learning curve is so steep right now. We believe it will only get better. He’s got a power hitting game in the sense that he’s skating so well and he’s strong with the puck. It’s a heavy body, so it can hang on to the washers at the bottom. He has a hard time fending off the puck and he has a very good shot. He’s ready to take the pucks to the net.

Statistically speaking

• The Penguins controlled the shots, 33-29.

• O’Connor and Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews each led the game with six shots.

• With defenseman Kris Letang sidelined after signing up for the NHL covid-19 protocol, he was replaced in the Penguins’ best pair by John Marino who led the game with 26:05 of ice on 28 shifts.

• Defenseman Morgan Reilly led the Maple Leafs with 22:59 of ice time on 28 shifts.

• The Penguins dominated the face-offs, 39-22 (64%).

• Penguins forward Teddy Blueger was 17 for 24 (71%).

• Kampf was 7 to 14 (50%).

• Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin, forward Danton Heinen and Muzzin each led the game with three blocked shots.

Random talk

• Believe it or not, there was a time when the Maple Leafs seemed to want to take control of this game. It was right after O’Connor’s opening goal when the Maple Leafs got their only goal from forward Jason Spezza less than a minute later. After that, they just dotted the Penguins’ offensive zone with rushes and threw a bunch of quality shots on goal.

But there was goalkeeper Tristan Jarry who dismissed them all after Spezza scored. In total, Jarry made 16 of his 28 saves in the first half. And the Penguins needed him because the Maple Leafs had all the momentum.

A six-goal win doesn’t always compliment the winning goalie very well. But Jarry earned the win with a solid first half.

• Really, if the Penguins had been the team to give up a touchdown in this game, it would have been understandable. After all, they were missing a $ 31.85 million salary cap in the form of Letang as well as forward Jeff Carter, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust. They had every excuse to lose this game. Still, they dominated most of this game.

A result like this is a very strong reflection of the structure that Sullivan and the staff have put in place as well as the buy-in of the players to this pattern. These penguins are almost reminiscent of the Detroit Red Wings of the 2000s where everyone was on the same page and moved across the ice like a school of fish.

• In Letang’s absence, the Penguins’ defensive teams mingled and Pettersson really looked like he had drawn the short straw in this event. He was separated from his longtime partner Marino and moved on to the third couple.

All Pettersson has done is respond with a career-best three-point effort.

It might be a little harsh to say that Pettersson regressed in 2020-21 but he certainly hasn’t made any progress in his development. He said it. But this season, he looks so much more assertive in his decisions on the ice.

• It has a lot to do with assistant coach Todd Reirden overseeing defenders. His effect on several of the young defenders like Pettersson, Marino and Friedman has been notable this season.

Reirden’s bread and butter as a coach is his penchant for working one-on-one with the players and helping them smooth out the rough edges of their games. Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland and Brooks Orpik will tell you.

But last season much of that face-to-face advice wasn’t possible due to pandemic NHL rules that limited direct contact between coaches and players. As a result, many of Reirden’s lessons were taken from a distance.

Today Reirden is able to have one-on-one discussions with defenders and it really seems to be paying off.

• The Penguins’ first major fight of the season was recorded by their biggest player, forward Brian Boyle, against Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds at 13:16 of the third period.

After Friedman tripped Kerfoot at the center red line, Simmonds spoke to Friedman and then cut his skates, prompting Friedman to fall. This was followed by Simmonds who threw a shoulder high against Penguins forward Dominik Simon.

Boyle had seen enough and immediately challenged Simmonds.

Simmonds (6-foot-3, 180 pounds) got the better of Boyle (6-6, 245). But the outcome of the fight was irrelevant. The sight of a Penguins player actually standing up to an attacker in a notable way was a rare but welcome sight, especially for management.

To be clear, this author is not a big believer that fighting will reduce future violence. If anything, it’s kind of a never-ending cycle. Simmonds will try to manhandle the Penguins the next time he faces them. This is his game.

But Simmonds was unable to cause more trouble for the remainder of the game due to the penalties he racked up thanks to Boyle challenging him.

• Friedman received a minor beautification rating for this scene. He is clearly not a favorite of league officials.

• Simon might have had the best individual moment of the game 20 seconds after the start of the third period. First, he lifted Spezza’s stick in front of the visitors bench to steal a puck. Then he reversed course and gained the attacking zone. Finally, he grabbed Maple Leafs defenseman TJ Brodie and made a subtle pass to the left circle for Boyle to fire a receiving shot.

It was Simon’s fourth point (one goal, four assists) in five games this season. Beyond production, he just looks faster than the last time he skated for the Penguins. There have been a lot of complaints about the Penguins re-signing, but he’s been a pretty valuable contributor to this team considering the absences they’ve endured.

• Heinen had a game under the radar with two assists. He now has five points (three goals, two assists) in five games.

• The Penguins lead the NHL with 14 different scorers this season.

• Damn, what’s wrong with the Maple Leafs? They just didn’t look like they gave a you-know-what (with the exception of Simmonds). It sounds like a toxic situation.

You can only fire the head coach a certain number of times before the players are held significantly responsible.

• Attendance was listed as 15,397. The total capacity of PPG Paints Arena for hockey is 18,187.

Historically speaking

• Penguins forward Jake Guentzel (260 points) passed former defenseman Sergei Gonchar (259) for 32nd place on the franchise’s career scoring list.

• In a cruel twist, Letang enjoyed the Penguins’ longest streak in a row at 56 – including the playoffs – before Saturday. He had only recently inherited this streak from Rust who was injured on October 14.

With Letang injured, Pettersson is the Penguins’ new “iron man” in 54 games. Although at this rate it might be more appropriate to call Petterson the Penguins “the barium man”.

Visually speaking

• Summary of the game.

• Summary of the event.

• Strong points:

Follow the Penguins throughout the season.

Seth Rorabaugh is an editor for Tribune-Review. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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