The 2019 Boston Bruins Playoffs are presented by Beth Israel Lahey Health.
BOSTON - The University of Minnesota-Duluth hockey team is in Buffalo preparing for its third NCAA Frozen Four in as many years. The second-ranked defending champions have Providence College and the winner of UMass/Denver in their path to claiming the first ever back-to-back titles in program history.
While there are a handful of players no longer with the program after last year's victory over Notre Dame, one alum will soon find himself in a very similar situation as his former teammates. As the Bulldogs take the ice against the Friars, the team's former two-year captain and 2018 NCAA Tournament MVP, Karson Kuhlman, will be experiencing playoff nerves of his own, almost 400 miles to the east, at TD Garden.
On Thursday night, Kuhlman and fellow rookie Connor Clifton will make their Stanley Cup Playoffs debuts when the Bruins take on the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1 of their first-round series.
"Connor and I have definitely talked about some things, and it's nice having other guys in the same situation as you," said Kuhlman, who will play alongside Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci as the B's second-line right wing. "Not everybody has been through the gruel of a playoff series and a playoff run, for sure, so it's nice having those guys around to kind of bounce off ideas. At the same time, I'm just excited to play more hockey. It's a pretty good spot to be in."
Indeed it is. And the Minnesota native is no stranger to high-pressure situations, though this time it's a little different. Undrafted out of college, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney inked Kuhlman to a two-year, entry-level contract last April, following his stellar performance at the NCAA tournament.
While some players might have been negatively affected by going undrafted, Kuhlman knew it meant he had to work that much harder. He never lost faith in himself.
"It built a lot of confidence just to kind of get rewarded for a lot of hard work," said Kuhlman. "I was a late developer, I guess, with four years of college…that time to get my game to where I wanted it to be before going pro. I think just taking it day-by-day and having that confidence built really helped."
Video: BOS@CBJ: Kuhlman slams home loose puck
Clifton followed a similar path to Boston's postseason lineup. The New Jersey native played four seasons at Quinnipiac University, helping lead the Bobcats to the National Championship game - a 5-1 loss to North Dakota - during his junior season in 2015-16. He was also captain as a senior.
Unlike Kuhlman, the blue liner was drafted, a fifth-round selection by the Arizona Coyotes in 2013. His choice to stay in school for four years left him a free agent, however, giving the Bruins the ability to sign Clifton to a two-year contract last May.
"Growing up it's crazy. You don't really expect to play," said Clifton, who also spent time with the U.S. National Development Team Program. "You're just as good as so many players, and then eventually you get a shot. I got my commitment to Quinnipiac, I guess, when I was a junior in high school, so 16 or 17. I was with the [Jersey] Hitmen [of the EJHL].
"It's a dream to play Division 1 college hockey, right? And then you get a commitment, and then you go in and develop. You obviously dream about playing in the NHL, but you don't know if it will ever happen, right? And then long story short, here we are."
And it appears that him and Kuhlman could be here to stay. Both players began their seasons in Providence, before injuries forced them to be recalled to the big club. Clifton debuted in November and returned in mid-March, with Kuhlman getting a stint in February before his latest call-up in late last month.
The duo has impressed in limited time with the Black & Gold. Kuhlman has displayed speed and tenacity while playing mostly with DeBrusk and Krejci, picking up three goals and two assists in 11 games after posting 12-18-30 totals in 58 games with Providence this season.
"He's performed well. He has a history of playing his best hockey at crucial times. He's got leadership qualities," Sweeney said of Kuhlman. "I don't think he changes the way he plays, regardless of the situation, and that's a benefit to him as well. I think he knows what his strengths are, and he tries to play to those, which again, coaches appreciate. When you have the ability to plug a player in, and he doesn't change regardless of the situation, I think that's a benefit for all parties.
"And I think that's what Karson's done. He's played in all different roles and up and down the lineup, but he's handled himself really well, and he's earned the opportunity to be here and be in the mix."
Video: Clifton readies for possible playoff debut
Clifton, meanwhile, has become a dependable piece of Boston's back end, displaying a tough, hard-hitting style on the right side to go along with a plus-5 rating in 19 games.
"He's been a good defender for us," Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said of Clifton. "Reliable guy, hasn't been scored on much. He moves the puck well when he's engaged in the game and moving his feet…we like what he brings."
But now things are ratcheting up a notch. While Clifton and Kuhlman have both played at a championship level in the past, they know the Stanley Cup Playoffs bring a different kind of intensity.
"I kind of have my routine that's worked for me thus far, and obviously everybody knows how electric it's going to be Thursday night. I'm definitely looking forward to that," said Kuhlman. "The sooner that you can calm your nerves and get back to ground zero with your game, the better, and hopefully I can do that right away there in the first shift."
Fortunately, Kuhlman will have Clifton along for the ride with him.
"I'm pretty much doing the same types of things," said Clifton. "Obviously, the Frozen Four was a special time, and that's playoff hockey, too. I don't really know how to compare them yet. I don't really think they compare too much, but playoff hockey, it's a series and not single-game elimination. Every game is still important. I just want to prepare for each one."