Pittsburgh Penguins forward, Jake Guentzel (59), waits for the face-off during a game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Carolina Hurricanes. (Credit Image: Spencer Lee/ Triangle Sports Media).

With Two Players in Protocol, Penguins Look to Stop COVID Spread

The Penguins managed to get through the shortened 2021 season without a single COVID-19 case. Now, less than a week into the 2021-22 preseason, they find themselves dealing with a mini-outbreak as two players from the NHL roster, Zach Aston-Reese and Jake Guentzel, have tested positive.

“It’s certainly been a reality for our team to this point, so we’re going to do everything in our power to try to mitigate the risks,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “We’re already in the process of meeting with our team doctors and talking about reimplementing some of the mitigation strategies we utilized last year. I thought our players did a terrific job with their diligence and disciple to adhere to some of the protocols that were put forth by the league last year. This is a little bit of a different environment, but right now our team is going to do everything in its power to try to get out ahead of this.”

For one example, the Penguins will start testing players, staff and everyone around the team every day for the foreseeable future. They’re discussing going back to social distancing measures in the locker room and spreading players out when holding meetings.

“It’s clear that it hasn’t gone away yet,” said defenseman Mike Matheson. “There’s a lot of areas in the world that are still really affected by it, including the U.S. and Canada, and we’re super lucky to get to do this every day. An inconvenience, if you want to call it that, to wear a mask and things like that is pretty minor to continue doing what we do.”

“I think this is the reality of pro sports right now,” Sullivan said. “And until the world gets a handle on this pandemic, we’re all trying to manage through it. I’m not sure there’s a whole lot we can do about it other than just control what we can; react the right way. We’re in the process of talking with our team doctors right now, and our first concern is to try to manage through this, and we’re going to try to stop it as best we can. It’s going to take cooperation from everyone involved, and I think they understand it’s just the reality of the world we live in right now.”

Reality for the Penguins also includes their top two centers, captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, on the shelf for the start of the season. That makes the loss of Guentzel, their second-leading scorer last year, tougher if it extends into the start of the regular season, which opens next Tuesday, Oct. 12, in Tampa.

Pittsburgh’s healthy players, however, provided some positive moments in Sunday’s 5-1 preseason win over a Detroit Red Wings lineup that iced fewer NHL regulars than the Penguins’ roster.

Danton Heinen, signed to a one-year deal this summer, got the call to fill Guentzel’s last-minute absence on the top line as well as the top power play unit, and took full advantage of the opportunity with a goal and two assists. The 26-year-old winger’s reputation is as a bottom-six penalty kill specialist, but he scored 47 points in 77 games for Boston in 2017-18 and is showing himself to be a versatile piece that could be moved up and down the lineup.

“I think his offensive instincts have been on display this whole camp,” Sullivan said. “I thought he was good in the intrasquad games, and tonight was his best exhibition game. When he plays with his offensive players, his offensive instincts are more evident. We think he’s a good player; we think he can play the type of game we’re trying to play here in Pittsburgh. I think with each day he gets under his belt and gets more familiar with how we’re trying to play, it’s just going to help him.”

Kasperi Kapanen, who had a resurgent year for the Penguins last season with 30 points in 40 games, scored two goals and an assist in his third preseason game, the only player to appear in all three so far.

Finally, goalie Tristan Jarry looked sharp in his first full preseason game, stopping 25 of 26 shots with the only blemish coming on a cross-crease play with the Penguins killing a two-man advantage.

“It’s real encouraging,” Sullivan said. “I thought he was confident, he made a couple of real timely saves, and so that’s certainly something I think he can build on. I thought he got better as the game went on, which for me is a good sign as well. I would anticipate he’s going to get one more full game, and Casey [DeSmith] as well.

“We’re trying to give those guys an opportunity to prepare themselves, understanding just like all of our players that we’ve got to knock some of the rust off. The mindset of an NHL game, the intensity, it’s different. And the only way to get yourself game-ready is, you’ve got to immerse yourself in the situation. I was real encouraged by Tristan’s effort tonight.”

“I think he’s where we all know he can be and usually is as a goaltender,” Matheson said of his netminder, who took much of the blame for the Penguins’ first-round playoff elimination. “We continue to have every bit of confidence in him.

“That’s what makes being a goalie so hard. You look at Game 5; he made one mistake and everybody saw it. If you went back and watched the entire game, I know I made four or five; [defensive partner] Johnny [Marino] probably made four or five. But if you’re a goalie, there’s nobody behind you to back you up. We definitely didn’t lose confidence in him, and we have every bit of confidence he’s going to be his normal self, which is a pretty special goaltender.”