Zach Aston-Reese spent the first month of his offseason drinking meals through a straw.
He did not spend that month angry or bitter about how he ended up in that predicament in the first place.
Aston-Reese, who suffered a broken jaw and a concussion when he was leveled by a Tom Wilson headshot during Game 3 of a second-round playoff series with the Washington Capitals, was back on the ice, none the worse for wear, as he and 13 teammates held an informal skate in Cranberry on Wednesday morning.
He got well acquainted with ice cream and smoothies during the month of May.
“Guys on the team have gone through similar injuries with jaws or teeth. They kind of paved the way,” Aston-Reese said. “They had some nice ideas for me. Some of the chefs out here made me some nice soups and broth and different puddings and stuff like that. It wasn’t too bad at all.”
In June, his first meal after being cleared to eat solid foods came from Five Guys.
“I had to cut it up into the pieces, though,” he said.
These days, the only time he’s reminded of the hit it when he yawns.
“I have a weird yawn now,” Aston-Reese said. “People laugh at me, specifically my trainer back home. He made me very aware of the yawn.”
Aston-Reese said any anger he had about the brutal hit he absorbed was gone within a week or two.
“It was my first playoff experience. More mad about the fact that I had to miss it and worried that it became too much of a distraction in media or stuff like that for the rest of the team,” Aston-Reese said. “I don’t think that’s what happened. After that, the focus just switched to getting better for next year and earning a spot.
“That’s something you sign up for when you play hockey. When you start, pee wee, bantam, you’re going to get hurt. You can’t really be too mad about it because that’s something you sign up for.”
When the Penguins signed up Matt Cullen and Derek Grant in free agency, Aston-Reese’s path to an opening-night roster spot became more difficult. He’s one of few NHL-caliber forwards on the roster who can be sent to the AHL without going on waivers.
As such, he’ll have to make a strong impression on management in camp in order to make the team.
It’s a challenge he’s ready for.
“There’s spots, but they have to be earned,” Aston-Reese said. “That’s a better mindset to have anyway rather than something being given to you and coming in complacent. It’s better to have that mindset that you’re on the bubble every day.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.