Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup freshmen made a big splash in Game 1. And their path to the NHL echoes that of Tampa Bay’s heroes a year ago.
PITTSBURGH – If the Pittsburgh Penguins had one distinct edge entering Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final versus the San Jose Sharks, it was experience. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen had championship rings. Heck, so did backup goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who could at least spread some wisdom in the dressing room. The Sharks had only one player with a ring: goalie Martin Jones, who won his as a backup to Jonathan Quick with the Los Angeles Kings.
But who ended up leading the Pittsburgh’s attack during Game 1’s first-period blitz, in which it outshot San Jose 15-4? The youngsters. Bryan Rust, 24, scored his sixth goal of the post-season, setting a Penguins rookie record. Conor Sheary, 23, found the twine as well. Neither played in the NHL at the start of this season. Standing tall in goal, stopping 24 shots, some of which called for acrobatic pad saves: Matt Murray, 22, the youngest Stanley Cup final goaltender since Patrick Roy in 1986.
“I thought guys handled the amplified spotlight the Stanley Cup finals bring,” said Cullen, a grizzled 39. “You talk about the young guys being pretty unfazed by it. It’s pretty impressive to see the way they played, whether it was Matty or Rusty or Shears. Tommy Kuhnhackl had a good game. You go down the line, and all the young guys played well. So I think we did a good job of handing it.
“The next challenge is handling the fact that it’s only one game, and we can’t pat ourselves on the back here too much, because Game 2 comes in a hurry.”
Well hold on, Matt. Game 2 isn’t until Wednesday. Let’s pause for a few minutes of back patting. How were Rust, Sheary, Murray, and Tom Kuhnhackl so unflappable in Game 1? It could have something to do with their familiarity playing together and for coach Mike Sullivan. Every member of that aforementioned group was a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin at some point in the calendar year of 2016, Murray as recently as February. They all started the season playing for Sullivan in the AHL before he got the call to Pittsburgh in December. Perhaps they’re so successful because they already buy into his speedy, attacking system.
“We put our opponents under pressure, whether we have the puck or we don’t have the puck,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes, you’re better off not having the puck and putting your opponents under pressure, and they have to make a play under a lot of duress, and you can create offense that way as well.”
It’s working, and Rust and Sheary in particular seem to embody that system. Does any of this sound familiar? It should. The Tampa Bay Lightning crusaded to the Stanley Cup final a year ago, and many of their marquee players, including Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn, played for coach Jon Cooper in the AHL before the NHL. They went from overlooked no-names to crucial contributors, largely because (a) the NHL coach was their AHL coach, knew their strengths and was willing to go to bat for them; and (b) they had pre-established chemistry with their coach and his game plan. In Pittsburgh’s case, that system is the north-south speed game, one that emphasizes stretch passes. Rust and Sheary put their stamp on Game 1 adhering to Sullivan’s methods, and it blew away Murray, who said Game 1 was “fun” and loved the way his team “came out flying.”
Can the former AHL castoffs carry the Penguins? Of course not. But they don’t have to. That’s Crosby’s job or Malkin’s job or Letang’s job. But the kids make the Penguins extra dangerous when they contribute complementary production, as we saw in Game 1. It remains to be seen if Rust is healthy enough to play in Game 2, but he’s made a mark on the series already.
“They’ve been a big part of this team for so long now, it doesn’t surprise us,” Sullivan said. “These guys are good hockey players. They add another element to our team, the energy that they bring, the enthusiasm that they bring to the rink. They’ve stepped up and made some big plays for us, not just scoring goals.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin