6 minutes ago

Observations from the Penguins’ 4-1 win against the Canadiens:

Empty netters are kind of an odd thing.

Think about it.

The goaltender, the one player on a team whose sole job to keep pucks out of a cage, is completely removed off the ice, usually very late.

That would be like if they just stopped paving Route 30 two miles east of Astoria, Ore.

It’s such a unique circumstance for this sport, or any sport really.

Empty net goals are kind of looked down upon as a result.

Many players will oftentimes call it not “a real goal.”

Even the ones that score them.

Take Zach Aston-Reese for instance.

“It’s a lot easier when there’s no goalie there obviously,” the Penguins forward quipped when asked about his goal Friday. “It’s nice that coach trusts us in those situations. We made a nice play as a line. Everyone got a touch in on it. Like I said, it’s a lot easier when there isn’t a goalie.”

This space on the Internet here is to defend the empty netter.

They should be appreciated. Usually, if you’re on the ice in a defensive situation with an empty net, that suggests the coach trusts you to protect the lead against a desperate opponent with an extra attacker on the ice.

Empty netters can secure wins. They can give you a unique place in NHL history. And they can be the names of blogs full of references about the Ruutu brothers and Jiri Slegr jerseys.

And they can help you break out of a 14-game skid without a goal.

Such was the case for Zach Aston-Reese who had not scored since Jan. 4.

“We do think he is capable of more,” Sullivan said on Thursday. “Zach is a real good player. He has good instincts. He’s strong in front of the net. It’s just going to take just staying with it. Just stick-to-it-ness and shooting the puck when he has the opportunity. Going to the net when he has the opportunity. He’s good at the net-front. He’s shown the ability to score at every level that he’s played at. We believe that he has the ability to score at this level. His line has been a real valuable line for us and his line has chipped in offensively as a group extremely well for us. But we think in Zach’s personal situation, we do think he’s capable of another level of offense.”

It wasn’t difficult, but Aston-Reese scored an important goal for himself and his team tonight.

Even if it was … no… BECAUSE it was an empty netter.

What happened

(Note: Our normal method for clipping video files is not available at the moment. We’ll restore those types of videos as soon as possible.)

Following a scoreless first period, a power-play goal at 7:35 of the second period gave the Penguins the contest’s first lead. After forwards Patric Hornqvist, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust won a battle in the offensive left corner for a puck against Canadiens forward Joel Armia and defenseman Jeff Petry, Hornqvist fed a pass to forward Sidney Crosby at the left point. Surveying the zone for a moment, Crosby slid a cross-ice pass to defenseman Kris Letang in the left circle. Teeing up a shot, Letang snapped a wrister past the glove of goaltender Carey Price on the near side for his 113th goal of the season. Assists went to Crosby and Hornqvist.

They made it a 2-0 game at 18:00 of the second after forwards Jason Zucker and Sidney Crosby connected for the first time. Zipping up the left wing, Crosby gained ht offensive zone to create a two-on-two with Zucker against Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot and Armia. Drawing them in, Crosby fed a pass to the vacant right circle where Zucker leaned down and snapped a shot off of Price’s glove and into the cage for his 15th goal. Crosby and forward Dominik Simon netted assists.

Montreal got on the scoreboard only 54 seconds later. Controlling a puck at the left point, Canadiens defenseman Victor Mete worked his way to the center point and fed a forehand pass to forward Tomas Tatarabove the left circle. Moving in towards the dot, Tatar released a wrister clunked through through goaltender Tristan Jarry’s five hole. It was Tatar’s 21st goal. Assists were credited to Mete and forward Nick Suzuki.

It took Zucker a mere 36 seconds to restore a two-goal lead for the Penguins, 3-1. Gaining the offensive zone on the right wing, Zucker left a drop pass for Crosby at the point. Taking a moment to let things develop, Crosby snapped a pass to defenseman Marcus Pettersson in the left circle. Reaching around a poke check by Petry, Pettersson slid a pass to the front of the crease. Battling through a check from Canadiens defenseman Brett Kulak, Zucker chopped the puck over Price’s hand. Pettersson and Crosby collected assists.

Aston-Reese’s empty net goal at 18:16 secured victory. It was his sixth goal. Forwards Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger got assists.

Statistically speaking

• The Canadiens led in shots, 35-28.

• Canadiens forward Ilya Kovalchuk led the game with eight shots.

• Forward Jared McCann led the Penguins with five shots.

• Letang led the game with 25:52 of ice time on 27 shifts.

• Petry led the Canadiens with 23:43 of ice time.

• The Canadiens had a 24-21 edge in faceoffs (53 percent).

• Canadiens forward Phillip Danault was 9 for 12 (75 percent).

• Crosby was 9 for 16 (56 percent).

• Pettersson and Kulak each led the game with three blocked shots.

Historically speaking

• Zucker is the 530th player to score a regular season goal for the Penguins.

• The last player with a last name beginning with “Z” to score a goal for the Penguins was forward Harry Zolnierczyk. He helped the Penguins to a 5-1 road win against the Buffalo Sabres, Feb. 5, 2014.

Randomly speaking

This is the basis of our game story, but Zucker said on Wednesday with the benefit of a normal gameday routine, things would be better for him. Well… that “normal” looked pretty good. He just seemed so much more in tune with what the Penguins do on Friday whereas on Tuesday, against the Lightning, he was primarily just skating around trying to fit in as best he could.

It’s enticing to wonder what he could offer with more beyond four-days of being par

The Penguins’ power play is gaining some traction having recorded goals in three consecutive games. It’s fair to say it’s still a work in progress but it’s progressing in a good direction.

Jarry did little to shift anything in the competition between himself and Murray. That’s to say he played very well. He made 34 saves and looked in control, albeit against a limited opponent.

The Canadiens played a pretty strong game within their limitations. Outside of a few legit talents such as an older Kovalchuk and Tatar, they mostly have third- and fourth-liners who are playing to their full but limited potential. And they all skate. They’re missing a vital component in defenseman Shea Weber and that doesn’t help things. But this team will make the opponent work for every inch on the ice. They did that to the Penguins on Friday.

One could label the Canadiens a poor man’s version of the Islanders. And the Islanders are kind of a team on workman’s comp.

Publicly speaking

Zucker’s first goal was the game-winner but Sullivan suggested his second goal might have been more important:

“There’s critical moments, I think, in games that … significantly influence the outcomes. The shift or two right after a goal is scored on either side is really important. For me, that’s one of those critical moments. There’s an opportunity to try to influence the game in a positive way. We get scored against … we come out shortly thereafter and score the way that we did gives our bench a huge boost. Those types of moments go a long way to controlling momentum. And this game is so much about momentum, it’s important to do your best to control it. That particular goal I think was an important one for us.”

Crosby on Zucker’s second game:

“He just looked comfortable out there. It’s hard. There’s so many new things that are thrown at you. (He) probably had a lot of things going through (his) mind in that situation. Today probably felt like more of a regular game day for him. It’s the same game. You just need to go out there and feel that. He got that first (game) under his belt but tonight, he was just flying. He created a lot. Got a couple of big goals for us.”

Sullivan on Zucker’s second game:

“His speed was more noticeable tonight. You could see how good he is on the transition when the puck changes from defense to offense. His ability to create separation to jump into windows of opportunity and we’ve got some guys that can get him the puck. I thought that was much more evident tonight. Jason’s going to get more comfortable with each day that he’s here. You could see his ability to finish. He had two real good goals tonight. So we’re excited about having him. We think he’s only going to get better. Familiarity is going to help him.”

Zucker sees a simple approach being best with regards to skating with Crosby:

“I’m just going to get open. That’s about it. I’m going to skate, try to push some (defensemen) back on that play. Get open, use my speed so the option is there.”

Crosby on Zucker’s offensive instincts:

“His speed opens up a lot. He creates turnovers and creates chances off the rush, as you see on the goals there. That’s kind of what’s allows him to do everything else, his speed. … He knows when it’s time to pull up and open up for a shot or go hard to the net. Sometimes too, it’s not always going to translate to you scoring but you might take someone with you and open up space for somebody else. His speed really pushes guys back. It allows him to get open.”

Zucker on being around the Penguins for a few days:

“It’s a winning culture and I felt that the day I got here. I felt that the very first game. It was a different feeling in here in a very great way. I’m just excited to be a part of it and hope I can help these guys win some games down the stretch here.”

Zucker joked about Pettersson’s pass setting up his second goal:

“That was unbelievable. I’m going to start giving (Pettersson) the puck more often. I stole one from him the shift before.”

On Thursday, many reporters from Montreal took in the Penguins’ practice in Cranberry and were struck by how high-tempo the session was. Sullivan was asked by a Montreal media member about their approach to practice after Friday’s game:

“We preach to our players all the time that we’re creatures of habits. We are what we repeatedly do. So we try to practice the way we play. We try to practice with pace. There’s always an element of intensity in the way we try to practice because we’re trying to prepare guys for game scenarios. I give our players really so much credit because of the worth ethic that they have. We have great leaders on the team that set the standard that starts in practice. But it translates into games. It’s hard to just flip the switch. These guys, they practice hard like that all the time. That’s part of the environment we’re trying to create here. We’ve got a great group of players that work extremely hard and I think our leaders set the bar there.”

Visually speaking

Game summary.

Event summary.

Highlights:

Follow the Penguins all season long.

Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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