Tom Kuhnhackl knew exactly what to expect in game one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins, his former club. Even if he couldn't chart the exact course of the Islanders dramatic 4-3 OT win, Kuhnhackl was more than familiar with the emotions, momentum swings and multiplied tensions that build up with every shift in the postseason.
"I wasn't surprised," Kuhnhackl said. "That's playoff [hockey]. Where the momentum changes after a power play or after a big kill or whatever, or good offenses zone shifts. That's the kind of game you've got to expect against [the Penguins]."
The surprise eventually came for Kuhnhackl the following afternoon when he had a huddle of media waiting at his stall following Thursday's practice. The scoresheet might not indicate it, as Kuhnhackl had a pair of goals overturned, but the former Penguin had a dominant performance against his former team.
"He was dancing," Head Coach Barry Trotz said post-game. "The one thing about Tommy, he's got two rings with that team across the hall. There's a reason that he has been part of two championships. When the moment is big, he knows how to be big in that moment."
Video: Bailey's OT goal gives Islanders 4-3 win in Game 1
If there is one area the German forward is well-versed in, it'd be the postseason. Kuhnhackl was drafted by Pittsburgh in 2010 and played six seasons with the Penguins' AHL and the ECHL affiliates before getting his call up. Three seasons later, Kuhnhackl has extensive playoff experience and a pair of Stanley Cup rings from back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017. So, facing his former club was no mystery.
"It's obviously a little weird going against your former team," Kuhnhackl said. "You know everyone pretty well from playing with them and having some good memories with them. But it's playoffs so you're trying to not worry about that as much as you are focused on what's in front of you."
Kuhnhackl knew going into the game that the moment the puck dropped, "there [would] be no friends" on the ice. Any friendly feelings the Penguins had for Kuhnhackl evaporated 33 seconds into the game, when Kuhnhackl jumped off the bench to join the rush and sniped a wrist-shot past Pens goalie Matt Murray.
The goal was ultimately overturned as the play was determined to be offsides, but it set the tone early on and framed the circumstances for the Islanders to capitalize on the momentum just 1:07 later with a goal from Jordan Eberle.
Video: Practice Update 4/11
Kuhnhackl again made his offensive presence felt in overtime. After the Penguins tied the score up 3-3 late in the third period, Kuhnhackl took the initiative in overtime and stickhandled through Olli Maatta and Erik Gudbranson. En route to the net, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound forward was tripped up and collided with Murray. The puck crossed the line, but the goal was waved off.
"I thought he played extremely well last night," Trotz said. "He had a couple of goals called back, but he was very effective. He's always been very effective in the playoffs."
For the Isles, who have relatively limited postseason resumes in comparison to the decorated Penguins, Kuhnhackl has been a resource. His insight of the Pens is an obvious bonus.
"Every team has certain identifies, certain protocols," Trotz said. "He could help you out a little bit there."
Since signing with the Islanders as a free agent on July 1, 2018, Kuhnhackl has been in and out of the Isles lineup. In 36 games, the 27-year-old had nine points (4G, 5A), largely playing a defensive/penalty killing role. Kuhnhackl's hard-nosed, physical play complemented the defensive-first style of hockey the Isles have newly embraced. With that, Kuhnhackl has bought into the team-first mentality.
Video: Focus: Game 2
"I think the whole team has done a tremendous job all year long of playing that kind of game and grinding other teams down," Kuhnhackl said. "If we have time and space, we can make plays, but if we don't, we've got to make smart puck decisions if we get it in. We're good enough to create turnovers off of the forecheck or defensive zone turnovers."
Kuhnhackl knows that game one is only the start of the intense matchup between the two Metro rivals. So far, Kuhnhackl is enjoying every second of it.
"We knew it would be a great series," Kuhnhackl said. "Those guys are so experienced and obviously you know the damage they can do [in the postseason]. Onto the next one."