Reaching the postseason is the most exhilarating and rewarding time of the year, but it can also be the most nerve-wracking. And in a rare best-of-five series, like this year's format for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, every period, every shift and every play is that much more important in the scope of a waning clock.
Tom Kuhnhackl did not suit up in the Islanders' 2-1 exhibition win over the New York Rangers on Wednesday night, but was in the lineup alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Derick Brassard, in the Isles 2-1 victory against the Florida Panthers in Game 1 on Saturday night.
Without having a final tune-up opportunity in the Isles' exhibition game, and subsequently being inserted into the high-stakes of Game 1, the Islanders winger was unfazed by the big stage.
Kuhnhackl was a catalyst for the Isles first goal of the game. After Scott Mayfield dumped the puck into the offensive zone midway through the first period, Florida's defenseman Riley Stillman went to retrieve it. Stillman was immediately pressed to face the boards from Kuhnhackl's tenacious forecheck and blindly played the puck along the boards. Brassard intuitively anticipated the play, collected the turnover and found Pageau for an easy tap-in on the doorstep.
Video: FLA@NYI, Gm1: Pageau pots Brassard's centering pass
"The last couple of seasons I've played in a bunch of playoff games so I knew what to expect," Kuhnhackl said of going into the lineup for Game 1. "Every time I go out there I just try to do my job as good as I can and help the team in any way possible."
Throughout the entirety of Kuhnhackl's five-year NHL career - split between Pittsburgh and the Islanders - he's found comfort and familiarity in competing in the postseason.
Kuhnhackl has reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs - and now Qualifiers - for five straight years and boasts a resume of back-to-back Stanley Cup titles and 10 points (3G, 7A) in 56 playoff games.
Through 28 regular-season games this season, Kuhnhackl picked up six points (3G, 3A) and one game-winning goal.
According to Head Coach Barry Trotz, Kuhnhackl was nicked up, which is why he sat out on Wednesday night. Like any seasoned pro, Kuhnhackl didn't lose any confidence missing the contest and it's that humble attitude that has earned him opportunity after opportunity to suit up in big games.
"When I didn't get to play that exhibition game, you just have to make sure you stay ready and do everything you can to stay ready and be in game-shape," Kuhnhackl said. "Throughout training camp, I think everybody competed hard, we battled for a spot. At the end of the day, I don't think it matters who is in the lineup. Everyone is capable of stepping in and doing the job."
Video: Isles Highlights: Tom Kuhnhackl
From a coach's perspective, Kuhnhackl is a luxury to have on the roster. During his career, the German forward has evolved his game to fit whatever role is needed from him.
From playing a hard-checking style, to being a human shield on the penalty kill, or even skating alongside more offensively-inclined linemates, he's versatile no matter if it's on the left or right wing and offers flexibility.
So while Trotz opted to keep the 28-year-old out of the lineup on Wednesday, he was almost certain Kuhnhackl would fill the left wing spot on Pageau and Brassard's line, which had been an open competition throughout camp.
"It's the trust I have in him," Trotz said of his decision. "Tommy's obviously won two Stanley Cups with a pretty good team in Pittsburgh. He's a guy that can play multiple roles, he's been in that situation. He got a little nicked up in the scrimmages [in training camp]. Ross [Johnston] went in there and did a really good job and made it very difficult for me to not stay with him. I knew Tommy was probably going to be the guy if he resolved his health issues."
During the Isles' regular season, Kuhnhackl was sidelined with a lower-body injury from Oct. 30 until Dec. 19. When he returned in the lineup, he played up and down the Isles lineup; everywhere from a stint alongside Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee to on the left side of Casey Cizikas and Leo Komarov, and most often with Brassard and Michael Dal Colle - for 17 games according to Natural Stat Trick's line tool.
There was even a time back when their careers first overlapped for 14 games in Pittsburgh, that Brassard and Kuhnhackl played on a line together.
"Tommy's played with some pretty high level players," Trotz said. "He's got really good hockey IQ. That goes sometimes under the radar. He can play with some skilled players and if you put in a checking role he's always on the positive side of the puck."
Pageau and Brassard were a tandem throughout camp, with six different wingers auditioning to complete the line. The Isles were searching for a player that could offer a balance and add some physicality to Pageau's sturdy two-way play and Brassard's knack for creating scoring chances.
The trio were a natural fit.
"[Kuhnhackl] played in a little more of an offensive role for us a little bit last year," Trotz said. "He's been able to be in a checking role. With Pager and that line, it gives us some balance. Pager is that great balance of offense and defense. Brass is that veteran player that can give you some offensive, but is probably more on that offensive side of a player through his career. With us, he's turned out to be a pretty good two-way guy. Tommy is one of those guys that is a compliment to whatever style or role you want to put him in."