|Despite having tallied only two assists in the postseason, the Pens' Tyler Kennedy has helped generate scoring chances by getting the puck to the net. Kennedy highlights|
It was already June. The sun was shining in Sault-Ste. Marie, Ont. The ponds were thawed. The competitive hockey season was completed. Kennedy was about ready to start his "summer-ice" workouts, but still buzzing across his television screen were men wearing scraggly beards battling for the sport's ultimate prize.
"I never have played hockey into June," the 21-year-old Kennedy told NHL.com. "I was always watching it with my parents and relaxing. I couldn't believe they were still playing and still fighting for the Cup. I idolized those guys. It was kind of amazing."
Today, Kennedy is one win away from being one of those guys.
As one of two Penguins' rookies – defenseman Kris Letang is the other – Kennedy's introduction to the grandest stage in hockey has been better than he ever envisioned.
His team is 11-1, holds a dominant 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and he's playing a key role as a speedy winger.
Kennedy has only two assists in the postseason, but his fight with Scottie Upshall three minutes into Game 2 against Philadelphia set the tone for the Penguins' 4-2 victory. He has averaged 10:20 of ice time while playing in all 12 playoff games alongside center Jordan Staal and winger Jarkko Ruutu in a third-line, checking role.
"Looking back a year ago it's hard to believe where he is right now because he missed the second half of the year with a sports hernia," Penguins GM Ray Shero told NHL.com. "What we saw last year and what the coaches at Wilkes-Barre (of the AHL) really liked about him is he had that jam, that quickness. He was real strong with the puck down low.
"I mean, TK, he just hounds pucks. He's likes to shoot. He'll shoot from anywhere. He likes getting pucks on net, which is great. This is a great experience for him."
Kennedy said the only part of the Stanley Cup Playoffs that has really surprised him is the buzz in every building. Then again, you don't get to feel the chills crawl down your arms and legs by watching the playoffs from your couch.
"Every rink I have been to the fans are unbelievably crazy," Kennedy said. "They're backing their team so much, it's awesome. I thought it would be a little bit like the regular season, but it seems like the whole city gets into the playoffs, which is great."
As for the on-ice product, Kennedy has fit in seamlessly. He, Ruutu and Staal have continued to play their hard, checking game, which doesn't always equate to goals or scoring chances, but does play a big factor in the outcome of a game.
Kennedy has hardly looked like a rookie either.
"He's making the right decisions with the puck," Ruutu told NHL.com. "If he doesn't have a play he just chips it off the boards and advances it. He doesn't give the other team a chance to go the other way, which is huge. That's how you lose games, when you start making mistakes at the blue line. He's real strong."
Kennedy, though, still views himself as a goal scorer even though he scored just 10 times during the regular season and had just 64 goals in 249 OHL games with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
"I think I'm an offensive player," he said. "I have a lot of speed and I can shoot the puck. I just have to get it into the net. My role is to create offense, to create energy. Just because the puck isn't going into the net doesn't mean I'm not a goal scorer."
Kennedy, in fact, believes he can score enough in future years to earn himself top-line minutes. Ruutu, his present linemate, isn't about to smother Kennedy's optimism.
"I mean, why not?" Ruutu said. "He just has to keep working and down the road, nothing is impossible. You can't get comfortable. You have to keep pushing. Why would you set a limit for yourself? If he thinks he can, he can."
Even when he was sprawled out on that living room couch, Kennedy always thought he could. The only difference is now he's doing it while some other kid up in Sault Ste. Marie is watching him buzz across the television screen.
"It'll be a little different this year, and that's great," Kennedy said. "I want the Cup."
Five more wins to go. June is right around the corner.
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.