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Marc-Andre Fleury doesn’t think anything he has experienced in his 14-year career that could prepare him for his return to Pittsburgh.

The Vegas Golden Knights goaltender — who won three Stanley Cups with the Penguins, including the past two seasons — will be back in Pittsburgh for the first time since Vegas selected him the expansion draft last summer.

Fleury played against — and beat — his former teammates in December in Las Vegas, but he said that doesn’t compare.

“I think it’s different from every game I’ve ever played,” the Penguins’ all-time winningest goaltender said. “In Vegas, I got a little taste of playing against friends and ex-teammates. I guess I got that out of the way. We’ll see.”

Fleury stopped 24 shots in that December game, the first meeting between the teams.

“There’s always motivation when you’re playing against friends and former teammates, especially the position we’re in and what happened when we were there,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “I’m sure he’s excited. It’s probably one he’s been thinking about for a while.”

Fleury practiced in Pittsburgh with the Golden Knights for the first time Monday. He said it was weird to go through his routine in the visitors’ locker room but good to be back in Pittsburgh, where he spent 13 seasons.

“It was my home for so long,” Fleury said. “I met a lot of people over the years who were great to me. It was a fun time.”

Pittsburgh took Fleury as a 19-year-old with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NHL draft. He set team records for games and minutes played, wins and shutouts.

Current starter Matt Murray stepped in when Fleury went down on the eve of the 2016 playoffs. Murray helped the Penguins to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup and eventually grabbed the No. 1 job.

Fleury knew his departure from Pittsburgh was inevitable last spring, but didn’t want to become a distraction as the Penguins sought to become the first team in nearly 20 years to win back-to-back championships.

Teams were allowed to protect one goaltender from the Golden Knights in the expansion draft, but players with no-movement clauses had to be protected. Fleury waived his no-movement clause before the trade deadline so the Penguins could protect Murray.

Then he enjoyed one final run with the Penguins.

Fleury regained the starting job when Murray aggravated an injury during warm-ups in the first game of the playoffs. He won nine games and helped eliminate division rival Columbus and the Presidents Trophy-winning Washington Capitals before Murray returned in the third round of the playoffs against Ottawa.

“We tried to do what was best for the hockey team and Marc was just such a professional in how he handled the whole thing,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Those conversations might have been some of the hardest I ever had as a coach and the reason is because of how highly we think of him. He’s a great player, he’s a great person and he’s a great teammate.”

In Vegas, Fleury has helped the surprising Golden Knights to the top of the Western Conference standings. Vegas has already set the record for victories by an expansion team, and with a win on Tuesday, it would be two from matching the most road wins by a team in its inaugural season.

“From the start, expectations weren’t too high,” said Fleury, who earned his 390th career win Sunday to pass Dominik Hasek for sole possession of 13th place in NHL history. “I don’t think any of us wanted to be satisfied with just being OK or being an expansion team. I think we wanted more than that.”

Fleury will most certainly want more during his return to Pittsburgh.

“You always want to win,” Fleury said. “I don’t think I’m going to block anything out, either. I think it’s going to be a special moment for me, the first game back. I want to remember it and remember my time here.”

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- Pittsburgh Penguins forward Conor Sheary is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury.

Coach Mike Sullivan said Thursday that Sheary is “week to week” after getting hurt in a 5-2 win over San Jose on Tuesday.

Sheary has 12 goals and seven assists in 52 games. Bryan Rust, who scored twice against San Jose, took Sheary’s spot on the top line with Sidney Crosby and Dominik Simon during practice Thursday.

The Penguins have won eight of 10 to move into second place in the Metropolitan Division behind Washington. The Capitals visit Pittsburgh on Friday.

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Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang represented the Metropolitan Division at the NHL’s All-Star Game tournament on Sunday afternoon at Amalie Arena, suffering a 7-4 loss to the Atlantic Division.

 ”It was fun. It was pretty tight for the most part, until the end,” Crosby said. “There were some big saves, some really nice goals, some nice plays. That’s what it’s all about.”

Crosby picked up a goal and assist in the contest while Letang notched a goal of his own.

“It’s a lot of talent. It’s a pretty open game,” Letang said. “You try to pass the puck more than you would. You also want to be careful with the goalies and players (for injuries). The fans paid money to come and see so you try to put a good show on and try different things.”

Crosby played with his longtime rival Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. The two superstars set each other up for goals of their own. Crosby teamed with Ovechkin last season and the duo helped lead the Metro Division to a tournament victory. Though this year it wasn’t meant to be both players enjoyed the experience.

“It was good,” Ovechkin said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to play out there, only a couple of shifts. But it was fun.”

“He’s a pretty easy guy to play with,” Crosby said. “As soon as you get over the blue line you look for him.

“He makes it look pretty easy. It’s fun to play with someone like that.”

Letang scored one of the nicer goals in the game. He collected a pass from John Tavares – he played with the Islanders’ Tavares and Josh Bailey – and juked goalie Carey Price to the ice before pulling the puck around the prone goaltender.

“Tavares was dangling and they were focused on him,” Letang said. “I was just trying to get there and be open. I faked the one-timer and walked around Price.”

For Letang, it was his first fourth All-Star appearance, but his first in the 3-on-3 format. He is a big fan of the new setup and hopes the league keeps it.

“It’s way better,” Letang said. “The 5-on-5 there isn’t enough room. Guys are just coasting. This you have to skate and there’s something to win. So guys are trying hard.”

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During the Penguins’ 6-5 overtime win over Boston on Jan. 7, Sidney Crosby carried the puck up the ice on a 2-on-1 rush with Daniel Sprong.

Crosby tried to thread a pass over, but the play was broken up by Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk. When they returned to the bench, Crosby pulled out an iPad and talked through what had happened with Sprong.

“Just on the 2-on-1, he wanted me to slow down a bit,” Sprong said. “I asked him at what point he wants me to slow down and we read off the D, so it’s good that we’re talking a lot and I think that really helps. I was kind of behind him so I didn’t have the chance to go all the way to the back, so that’s when I’ve just got to pull up a little bit and make it easier for him.”

Having a teaching moment like that, during a game, in real time, wasn’t possible before the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, which is when the NHL made a deal with Apple to deliver video and data to the bench on a tablet. They decided to use a system called iBench, which is powered by a company called XOS Digital.

Many teams, including the Penguins, were already using XOS Digital’s video platform called Thunder Hockey to capture in-game feeds for hockey operations use, so it made sense to use the same company to stream video on the iPads.

The buildings of all 16 playoff teams were outfitted, which was a process considering the iPads have to operate on the same WiFi as the fans in the arena. They situated the access points and bandwidth usage, and as teams got eliminated, they were able to narrow their focus. It worked so well that they decided to expand it to all 31 buildings this summer, which was a big undertaking, but a big success.

“A lot of people thought they were crazy to think they would start it at the playoffs last year, but it was a pretty good time to try it,” said Brant Berglund, director of hockey products for XOS Digital. “It was something no one was dependent upon, it wasn’t mission critical at that point. People could pick it up and use it or leave it alone for now until they were more comfortable. A lot of teams really jumped in, particularly the two teams that made it to the Final.”

Obviously, the Penguins were one of those teams, and it was important to head coach Mike Sullivan that they embrace the new technology.

“Mike Sullivan said at a users’ conference this summer something along the lines of, ‘we knew it would give us a competitive advantage if we were good at it and a disadvantage if we weren’t, so we decided to invest the time and figure out how it would work the best,’” Berglund said. “That’s a credit to Mike, who’s always been a progressive thinker.”

Basically, this is how they work: Penguins video coach Andy Saucier captures the feed from the TV production truck on one of the computers in his office. The signal that he gets is then streamed out to those access points that are set up right behind the bench, and the iPads grab their feeds from there.

The iPads are set up like DVRs with controls at the bottom – for example, forward 10 seconds, forward five seconds, fast forward, slow motion. Whoever’s using it can simply take their finger and just buffer through the timeline. It’s not quite immediately available, but there’s only about a 5-10 second delay.

“It’s definitely the simplicity of the iPad and the platform itself that really accentuates the quickness that these guys can use it,” Berglund said. “We make the app and the NHL lays the groundwork for the connectivity and consistency of the signal, but the iPad is really the driving force behind all of it in terms of the ability to quickly navigate and use the Apple toolset. It’s been a pretty good marriage between all three.”

In addition, during a game, Saucier is tagging everything and making a bunch of clips. For example, when the Penguins score a goal, he presses a button and the play rolls back a certain number of seconds and forward a certain number of seconds. Since the iPads are tied into the program Saucier is using, that will be displayed on the tablet on the bench as a ticker mark in the timeline.

“It’s easy when you’re just watching from either up top or on the TVs, you can see the whole ice,” Saucier said. “But for them, they’re out there and it’s a different view, so all of a sudden they can see it on video right after their shift is over. They can see what’s available or they can see maybe where they have an opportunity to make a play or something like that. They really like it.”

Last spring, it was Rick Tocchet who was the coach in charge of using the iPads. This year, it’s Mark Recchi.

“They’re great for the coaching staff because we can go back and look at teaching points with the guys,” Recchi said. “Sometimes we get caught up talking to guys and something happens, or Sully might see something and he says, ‘take a look at that and I’ll take a look at it and I’ll show the guys.’ It’s great, it really is. It really benefits teaching right on the bench, even if you miss something. It’s great.”

Though it’s not just the coaching staff using them – more and more players have started taking the iPads into their own hands. That’s just the generation they’re from – they grew up using technology and they’re incredibly comfortable with it, so it’s been a perfect match in that regard.

“What was surprising was not necessarily the coaches grabbing them in a TV timeout, but it’s the frequency you see them being grabbed when players come to the bench between whistles,” Berglund remarked. “Someone has one in their hand and the great thing is to see it in player’s hands. I’m not quite sure that was perceived. It was thought that players would be shown things by coaches but not for coaches to hand the reigns over to players.

“Our programmers and engineers, they may not watch a lot of games, but to see Sidney Crosby sitting by himself on the bench using it, you couldn’t ask for a better thing to see.”

Right now, the Penguins have three iPads on the bench, but Saucier joked that they’re in such high demand they may need to re-evaluate that.

“I think when we first got them, it seemed like, why do we need three?” Saucier said. “But now Rex can’t get his hands on one when he wants to see something and we have three players watching something, so we might need some more.”

Recchi said that he needs two all the time for just the forwards, but it’s not always easy to procure them.

“I go to look at something and I’m like, ‘where the heck are my iPads?’ And they’re all looking at them,” he laughed. “They all got it down pretty good now, too. They’re looking right at the end of their shifts. It’s a good tool for them because they can see. It might be even getting a shot on goal, what did they see on a replay, or something like that. So it’s a huge benefit for everybody.”

Especially for this Penguins team, a mix of elite superstars and young talent who are all constantly trying to get better and better each and every day.

“They watch a lot of video, really just on their own, it’s not mandated at all,” Saucier said. “But they all watch, they watch their shifts, they want to get better and having it immediately on the bench is huge. I think it’s helped a lot for especially our guys, the types of personalities and types of learners we have.”

That starts with Crosby, who’s known for his incredible work ethic. As Sullivan has said, Crosby isn’t as good as he is by accident.

“As long as I’ve been associated with this league I don’t know that I’ve been around a player that has the same work ethic as Sid does as far as that insatiable appetite to try to just get better and be the best,” Sullivan continued. “And I think that’s why he’s as good as he is.”

Crosby thinks the game on another level, so he usually knows exactly when everything happened on the ice, and it doesn’t take him long for him to find what he’s looking for. At that point, he can look at the play and make his own adjustments, or have a visual tool to help explain to his teammates how to handle a certain situation.

“I think before, you’d have to wait till the end of the period,” Crosby said. “You’d go over the power play, you might not adjust or you might not see something because you don’t get a chance to really sit down and look at it for a period or so. So it’s nice to not necessarily waste time, but that you can look at it quickly and maybe adjust a little bit more on the fly than you typically would.”

But Crosby pointed out that it’s important not to get overly reliant on the iPads.

“I think sometimes it can be too much, too,” he said. “You don’t want to get caught. The game’s not static where you can just lay everything out the way you want to. But it’s nice to be able to look at that stuff sometimes. I think just knowing that the game is pretty free-flowing, a lot of things happen out there, but it’s a nice tool to have when you need it.”

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 6-3 win against the Minnesota Wild at PPG Paints Arena.

* The Pens continue to trend upward. Pittsburgh won its 7th game in the past 9, which includes a 4-game winning streak. With the win the Pens hopped into 2nd place in the Metro Division (barring the outcome of Columbus at Arizona). Just 3 weeks ago many had left the Pens for dead. Once again they’ve risen from the ashes.

* Sidney Crosby’s legacy is well set in the city of Pittsburgh. Although Mario Lemieux is the greatest player to ever wear a Penguins sweater (or play the game in general for that matter), Crosby removed any question as to which player is the second greatest to don the black and gold.

Crosby picked up 3 assists against the Wild to give him 1,082 career points, surpassing Jaromir Jagr (1,079) for second place on the team’s all-time scoring list. And now only Lemieux (1,723) stands between Crosby and the mountaintop.

* Sticking with the Crosby theme, he now has a season-long 9-game scoring streak for 19 points (3G-16A). That gives him 55 total on the season, and he has inched his way to within 6 (barring other game outcomes) of Nikita Kucherov for the NHL lead.

* Crosby surpassed Jagr in the most Crosby way ever. He backchecked into the neutral zone to steal a puck, pivoted and darted into the offensive zone before finding rookie Dominik Simon to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead.

* Speaking of Simon, the 23-year-old winger scored 2 goals against Minnesota, his first career 2-goal game. And he scored both in impressive fashion, snapping off hard wrist shots form the high slot and perfectly into the corner. Simon has an incredible release on his shot, and I love seeing him not afraid to use it.

Simon has 3 goals in his past 2 games and a 3-game scoring streak (3G-1A). The rookie has looked comfortable on Crosby’s wing, and now the production is starting to come.

* While Crosby is stealing a lot of the headlines and attention, don’t forget about Phil Kessel and Malkin. Kessel picked up 3 assists while Malkin added 3 points (2G-1A). The 3-headed Monster led the charge for the Pens.

Kessel now has 58 points on the season, just 3 behind Kucherov. And Malkin stands at 52.

* The Pens welcomed back center Matt Cullen. The former Pen signed with his hometown Minnesota Wild in the offseason. Cullen was a member of the Pens’ past 2 Stanley Cup titles. He was affectionately referred to as “dad” by his teammates for his mentor and leadership role. The crowd gave Cullen a huge ovation as the “Thank You” video played for him during the 1st period.

* One negative in the game for Pittsburgh was the number of penalties taken by the team. Pittsburgh was penalized 5 times in the contest, and twice for closing their hand on the puck. Those types of mental lapses are inexcusable at this time of the season. Luckily the Pens’ PK stood tall, but it did cost rookie goalie Casey DeSmith his shutout.

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On Jan. 4, the Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins by a score of 4-0. The Pens’ vaunted offensive stars were blanked. In a critical game. At home.

It was an ugly loss.

It was a low point.

But, it was also a turning point.

After that setback, the Pens won six of their next eight games. And the two losses, both on the road in California, could have been Pittsburgh victories.

“We go on that California trip and we lose two of the (three) games, but we played three pretty solid games,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s about how you play. That’s what we talk with our team about. It’s about controlling the control-ables. It starts with attitude and effort and then we go from there.

“I give our players a lot of credit. They’ve been locked in here. And we’ve got to continue to be in order to get to where we want to go.”

Where the Pens want to go is the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s a position they weren’t in following the setback to Carolina in early January.

Pittsburgh sat 10th overall in the Eastern Conference and three points behind eighth-seeded Carolina for a playoff spot.

However, their recent 6-2 run – culminating in the Pens’ 3-1 revenge victory against the Hurricanes on Tuesday night – has catapulted the team into the eighth spot with 55 points, and within two points of second place in the Metro Division.

“We’ve had consistency for the most part and need to continue it,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “I think that the situation we’ve been in for a while, our urgency has picked up a lot. That’s a huge difference. Being tougher on the puck and all the little details to win games. We’re more aware of those.”

“We just kept building and building slowly (after the Carolina loss),” defenseman Olli Maatta said. “But we’ve played better. I think if we keep playing the same way and fix a couple of things we’ll be all right.”

The Pens will face the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena with a chance to enter this weekend’s All-Star break on a 7-2 run for 14 of a possible 18 points. And while the Pens are only two points from second place in the Metro Division, they’re also a mere two points out from the ninth spot and a non-playoff berth. That’s how tight the standings are with 30ish games left in the season.

“It’s coming down to crunch time,” center Riley Sheahan said. “Seeing everyone in the standings and how close they are, we realize that we’re still in the battle. It’s time to get our stuff together and put together some games. I think we’ve been playing some good hockey.”

There’s no doubt the Pens are in the midst of their best stretch of hockey on the current season. So that begs the question, what has changed with the team over the past three weeks.

“Confidence,” Justin Schultz told me.

“From stringing some wins together and getting back to our style of play,” he continued, “playing fast, good puck possession, holding onto pucks in the O zone. It feels like we have the puck more than we don’t.

“Confidence is huge. We’re getting back to that winning feeling and knowing what it takes. It was a slow start, but we’re picking it up now. We should be fine.”

And that confidence couldn’t be coming at a better time.

“The season is (almost) over,” Maatta said. “We didn’t start the way we wanted. We have to have that urgency right now.”

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have re-assigned forward Daniel Sprong to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, it was announced today by executive vice president and general manager Jim Rutherford.

Sprong, 20, scored twice and had three points in eight NHL games. He is the WBS Penguins’ leading goal scorer this season with 18 goals in 29 AHL contests. His 18 goals are tied for second-most among AHL rookies.
The Penguins return home tomorrow night to begin a four-game homestand that surrounds the All-Star Break. Pittsburgh hosts the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night at 7:00 PM ET at PPG Paints Arena.
Heading into tomorrow night, the Penguins have won three-straight home games. Evgeni Malkin (4G-3A), Phil Kessel (3G-4A) and Sidney Crosby (2G-5A) have each produced seven points during the streak. Crosby, who is tied for the NHL lead with 16 points (3G-13A) during the month of January, is riding a season-long seven-game point streak (3G-12A-15PTS). Heading into Monday’s action, only fellow Nova Scotia native Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche (9 games) has a longer active streak in the league.

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The Penguins begin a three-game road trip up the West Coast in Anaheim, California.

5 THINGS

1. The Pens have won four straight games entering tonight, and a victory against the Ducks would set a new season-high streak. Overall, the Pens are 5-1 in the month of January. “We’re playing fast. We’re playing hungry,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We’re winning battles, we’re quick on pucks, we’re not spending a lot of time in our own end, which is nice.”

2. Crosby has recorded multiple-point efforts in all four wins, producing 3 goals, 8 assists and 11 points. Phil Kessel has also gotten on the scoresheet in each victory, tallying 3 goals, 5 assists and 8 points.

3. Crosby’s next goal will be his 400th. He will join Mario Lemieux (690) and Jaromir Jagr (439) as the only players in franchise history to reach that number. Since debuting in 2005-06, only Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (586) has scored more often than Crosby.

4. The Pens are looking to bounce back from a 4-0 shutout loss to the Ducks on Dec. 23 at PPG Paints Arena. “I think we just need to be more aggressive and just win more 1-on-1 battles,” winger Carl Hagelin said. “Last game, we just looked sluggish and we just looked like we weren’t the team we want to be. We know what we can do and that’s what we’re going to do next game.”

5. The Ducks are 20-for-21 on the penalty kill in January, ranking 3rd among NHL teams in PK percentage this month. They thwarted both of Pittsburgh’s power plays in the first meeting of the season. Meanwhile, the Pens are 7-for-18 on the man-advantage in January and are tied for 1st in the league overall.

INJURIES

PIT – Chad Ruhwedel  (upper body), Carter Rowney (upper body), Bryan Rust (upper body)

ANA – Patrick Eaves (Guillain-Barre syndrome), Mike Liambas (upper body)

MORNING SKATE

* The Pens have the morning off after practicing on Tuesday at Honda Center. Head coach Mike Sullivan will address the media at 8 p.m. EST with lineup updates.

* The Pens recalled Jean-Sebastien Dea from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League this morning. He is the team’s third-leading scorer this season with 9 goals, 14 assists, 23 points and a plus-13 in 36 games.

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Penguins forward Phil Kessel, the NHL’s seventh-highest scorer, was named NHL ‘Third Star of the Week’ after helping the Penguins win both games this weekend following their five-day bye week.

Kessel, who leads the Penguins across board in goals (20), assists (32) and points (52), contributed five points (2G-3A) in victories against Detroit (4-1) and the New York Rangers (5-2). He had three points against Detroit (1G-2A), and two more versus New York (1G-1A). Kessel had the game-winning goal in both wins.

This is the second-straight week that a Penguins player has been named ‘Third Star of the Week.’ Captain Sidney Crosby took home the same honor last Monday.

Sunday night against the Rangers, Kessel’s goal that gave the Pens the lead for good was his 20th of the season, the 10th-consecutive year he has reached the milestone. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kessel joined Keith Tkachuk and Patrick Kane as the only American-born players all-time to score 20-plus goals for 10 or more consecutive years. That tally was also Kessel’s 700th NHL point, making him the 27th American-born player all-time to hit that mark. He and Kane are the only active Americans with 700 points.

This season, Kessel has been one of the most consistent offensive performers in the NHL. He has only gone back-to-back games without a point once the entire season – back on October 16 and 18. Right now, he is riding a four-game point streak (3G-5A-8PTS) and a three-game goal-scoring streak. If he gets a point on Wednesday night when the Penguins begin a three-game road trip in Anaheim at 10 PM ET, Kessel will compile his fourth five-game point streak of the season.

Kessel is on pace to score 36 goals, and to establish career highs in both assists (57) and points (93).

In January, Kessel has helped lead an offensive revival that has led to the Penguins winning five of their first six games this month. During that stretch, the Penguins have scored an NHL-high 24 goals. Kessel is one of four NHL players that have already hit double digits in points this month – a list that includes three Penguins: Crosby (3G-9A-12PTS); Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau (2G-9A-11PTS); Kessel (4G-6A-10PTS) and Evgeni Malkin (5G-5A-10PTS).

This season, Kessel (7th overall), Crosby (13th) and Malkin (14th) all rank among the NHL’s top-15 scorers. The Philadelphia Flyers are the only other team that has three players ranked that high.

Kessel and the Penguins currently sit in the top Wild Card position in the Eastern Conference playoff field. Pittsburgh aims to establish a season high by winning its fifth-straight game on Wednesday night.

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In Game 2 of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Round One matchup with Providence in the 2016 Calder Cup playoffs, Daniel Sprong received the puck on the halfwall during a power play and tried to backhand a pass to Tim Erixon.

Unfortunately, the pass didn’t make it to the intended recipient. Instead, it was picked off by Bruins forward Noel Acciari, who skated down on a breakaway and scored a shorthanded goal.

“Most coaches probably would have benched him at that time,” said former Penguins associate GM Jason Botterill, who was also GM of WBS at the time.

But not WBS head coach Clark Donatelli. Instead, Donatelli used it as a teaching moment, communicating to Sprong what he should have done differently in that situation.

“Then, to Clarkie’s credit, in the second period he actually popped him up to the first line and sure enough, who scores a goal?” Botterill recalled. “Then, he gives him more ice time in the third period, and who scores the overtime winner? It’s Daniel Sprong.”

That’s just one example of the many teaching moments that have taken place with Sprong over the last two years. He’s been a thrilling prospect since the Penguins made him their top draft pick in 2015, taking him in the second round (46th overall), and that excitement only intensified when he made the team’s NHL roster out of training camp.

Sprong would appear in 18 games for Pittsburgh before returning to junior hockey. But the excitement continued to rise as he posted eye-popping numbers in the QMJHL and AHL since that time, ramped up when Sprong was recalled back to Pittsburgh on Dec. 30, and reached a fever pitch in his fourth game with the team on Jan. 5.

That night, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan started Sprong on a line with Sidney Crosby, and the rookie winger scored twice and added an assist in Pittsburgh’s 4-0 win over the New York Islanders.

Sprong may have made everything look easy in that game, but the process he went through to do so is anything but. His offensive ability – most notably his shot – is his strength, which has been obvious.

But what had also been obvious is that Sprong needed to work on the defensive side of his game and become a more complete player if he wanted to earn a permanent spot in Pittsburgh.

Sprong also needed to work on becoming more mature – which, let’s be honest, what 18-year-old doesn’t? And following his first stint in Pittsburgh, that became apparent to Sprong as well.

“Just seeing what it was like until Christmas, just how guys were acting on and off the ice and going back to juniors and seeing guys my age who were younger acting differently than the pro guys did, I really saw a big difference in that,” Sprong said.

“Just the way they behaved, how they prepared and stuff was a big change. I saw then I had to mature, just the way I have to be as a pro. I think I’ve done a lot of that on the ice and especially off the ice.”

The process began with that first re-assignment to Charlottetown in 2015, where Sprong tried to take what he learned in Pittsburgh to the Islanders. He then joined WBS for that Calder Cup run, where Sprong finished with five goals in 10 games before returning to Pittsburgh to be part of the Black Aces during the Penguins’ 2016 championship run.

It was during a practice with the Black Aces that Sprong hurt his right shoulder, an injury that required surgery and came with a recovery timetable of 7-8 months. The rehab process was lengthy and grueling, but Sprong did what he could to continue his development throughout.

Most notably, he watched a lot of the Penguins’ postseason games from home while making mental notes – seeing what players were doing in the defensive zone and how he could implement that into his game.

Sprong took that mindset with him back to Charlottetown, where he returned to game action last January. After about three to five games, Sprong said he started feeling like himself again, and that’s when his game took off.

Despite missing most of the season, Sprong finished the year as one of the highest-scoring players in the QMJHL with 32 goals and 59 points in just 31 games. Those numbers included four hat tricks, one four-goal game and 10 multi-goal games

During that time, Mark Recchi, then the Penguins player development coach, made frequent visits up to Prince Edward Island – something he had done ever since Sprong initially returned to Charlottetown back in 2015 – while Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin also stopped in.

“(Recchi) has been really good to me,” Sprong said. “We went for dinners, he talked to me there. He’s a great player, so anything he says, you take it and try to put it into your game. Even Bill Guerin came down, so that’s pretty cool. Watched me play and then talked about the game, what he liked, what he didn’t like. That’s great advice.”

During his time in Prince Edward Island and in his talks with the Islanders coaching staff, what impressed Guerin the most about Sprong’s final season in junior was that the maturity that needed work had manifested itself.

“He’s not cheating to get offensive success, his offensive success is coming because he’s talented and he’s trying to play the best two-way hockey he can,” Guerin said of Sprong, who finished with a plus-29 after having a combined minus-50 in his first three seasons.

“Anything that his coaches and/or I talk about, he’s trying to implement. To me, that’s a good sign of maturity and that’s always the biggest hurdle. He’s got God-given ability and that’s not going to go anywhere. It’s just working on the rounded game and he’s doing that.”

Guerin also suggested that everything Sprong had been through up to that point had also helped with his maturity.

“Spending time with Pittsburgh, spending time with Wilkes-Barre, I think the injury has put things in perspective for him a little bit,” he said. “Going back to junior and having to handle that. All these things, at certain times they can make you feel good but they can also humble you and that’s what’s important. He seems like he’s gotten great experience that’s humbled him quite a bit in a good way.”

Sprong knew it would be his last chance to really develop and work on his game before making the jump to the pros for good, and he wanted to make the most of it. Once the season ended, Sprong turned his attention to having a strong summer heading into training camp, with the goal of playing in Pittsburgh at some point.

It started with being a member of the Black Aces for a second straight championship run before prospect development camp in July and the Prospects Challenge in September. And it was there that at times, Sprong appeared to be overthinking his game, sacrificing offense for the sake of defense.

After being held off the scoresheet in the first game, a 3-2 overtime loss to Boston, Donatelli felt that Sprong had given up a lot of opportunities to shoot. The message to Sprong was that they wanted to see more from him offensively, and that started with being more assertive. No more passing up chances to shoot. Play his game and do what makes him successful.

Sprong did that in Pittsburgh’s 6-2 win over New Jersey, scoring on the power play with a one-timer from the halfwall. He built on that in the final game of the tournament, a 5-3 win over Buffalo, finishing with 20 shot attempts against the Sabres, with fifteen of those hitting the net.

“I’m glad to see he’s shooting, because that’s what he does,” Donatelli said. “He’s a dynamic player and he’s a game-changer, and he’s definitely got a great shot. We want him shooting the puck.”

When Sprong reported to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the beginning of the 2017-18 campaign, Donatelli and assistant coach Tim Army continued to work tirelessly with him on finding that balance between playing his game offensively while being responsible defensively. That’s helped him tremendously in making all the details of a 200-foot game more of a muscle memory for him.