The real thing: Lafferty debuts on same line as Crosby
PITTSBURGH — Hollidaysburg product Sam Lafferty spent the majority of his youth skating around local Blair County rinks, typically donning a Sidney Crosby jersey.
Tuesday night as the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the Winnipeg Jets, he found himself skating on the same line as his childhood hero for his first shift in the big leagues.
Lafferty made his NHL debut in the Penguins’ 4-1 loss at PPG Paints Arena.
“It’s hard to really to put this into words right now,” Lafferty said from his locker room stall, which was positioned directly next to Crosby, following the game.
“This was such an overwhelming experience,” he continued. “It’s just so awesome, and it’s something I’ll remember forever. Hopefully I can process this some more in the next couple days.”
Following injuries to Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad — both of whom were put on injured reserve with “longer term” injuries — Lafferty was recalled from the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Monday morning on an emergency basis.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound forward was recalled along with forward Andrew Aggozino, who did not dress but previously appeared in 21 NHL games.
Lafferty, 24, became the first player in Blair County history to dress in an NHL regular season game.
“This is what you dream of as a kid,” Lafferty said. “It wasn’t until I got drafted that I thought it was a real possibility. I’m glad that it finally all worked out.”
The Penguins opted to dress seven defensemen due to having a depleted forward crop, and the former Altoona Tracker was expected to play on a hybrid fourth line with Dominik Kahun.
But numerous in-game injuries across the lineup quickly found him promoted to third-line duties.
Patric Hornqvist departed the game early in the first period and did not return after he appeared to take a shot to the inside of his left knee.
Forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Jake Guentzel also exited the game in the second period, which quickly depleted the team’s forward depth. Both eventually returned to the game.
With several injuries up front and the Penguins lacking forward depth, Lafferty’s visit in the NHL could be an extended stay.
“You just try to go out there and do your job,” said Lafferty, who logged 15:30 of ice time. “You have to keep playing hockey wherever you are- whether it’s here or Wilkes-Barre. You have to capitalize on the opportunities that you get.”
Lafferty has previously been lauded by the Penguins coaching staff as a fast and gritty forward.
That was evident from the start as he simultaneously created turnovers in the corners while finding soft spots through the Jets’ defense.
“I really liked his game,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of Lafferty. “His speed is so evident. He’s such a strong skater, and he’s strong on the puck himself. I really liked his game.”
His physical play drew a tripping penalty on Winnipeg defenseman Anthony Bitetto in the third period.
He was credited with four hits and four shots on goal.
“He has the attributes to be a real good role player,” Sullivan said. “He can play center. He can play the wing. He can kill penalties. He’s good on the forecheck. He’s got a good shot, and he can really skate.
“With the way the game’s being played today, if you can skate the way Sam skates, I think it really gives you a chance,” he continued. “I thought his skating tonight was very evident, and I thought he played a great game.”
This isn’t the first time Lafferty put his ability to outwork opponents on display.
He was given an extended look during the preseason where he appeared in four games, recording a goal and an assist.
“I think Sam has the potential to be a serviceable and valuable player for this organization, and I told him that when we sent him to Wilkes-Barre,” Sullivan said. “We really liked his training camp.”
A 2014 fourth-round draft pick out of Brown University, Lafferty played his first full season of professional hockey last season. He was the Baby Pens highest-scoring forward as he collected 13 goals and 49 points in 70 games.
Following four years of collegiate play, he signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Penguins in the spring of 2018.
With the jitters from his first taste of NHL action now out of the way, the burden now lies on Lafferty to continue his development in an attempt to seal a permanent spot on the team’s roster.
“When you’re in the game, you’re just playing hockey,” he said. “The game is a lot faster and the guys are a lot better. But it’s still the same game. You just try to play simple and play the right way.”