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Armstrong relishes chance to analyze Cup Final

Former Penguins forward now hosting pregame, postgame radio broadcasts

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- Colby Armstrong appeared in nine Stanley Cup Playoff games during his eight-season NHL career, and he still gets goosebumps thinking about the moment before he stepped onto the ice in the postseason.

Five of those games were with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007; the other four were with the Montreal Canadiens in 2013.

"I've never felt anything like it," Armstrong said Wednesday morning at Consol Energy Center, observing the madness that was the Penguins dressing room following their morning skate.

Pittsburgh will host the San Jose Sharks in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports), and Armstrong was channeling the energy that buzzed in this packed room.

The ebullient Armstrong now hosts pregame and postgame shows on radio for 105.9 FM, and flies up to Toronto for a few days each month to do television studio work for Rogers Sportsnet.

"Standing in the runway, just before you go on the ice?" the former forward said. "That's incredible. I dreamed about it as a kid, but to feel it was crazy. In Montreal, the energy was untouchable. I don't know how I handled it, or how other guys did, but if you took a guy off the street and put him in that situation, his head would explode.

"It was insane," he said, beaming, "but it was great."

Armstrong broke into the NHL with the Penguins as a 23-year-old in 2005-06, having been selected by Pittsburgh in the first round (No. 21) in the 2001 draft.

The Penguins failed to make the playoffs in his rookie year, then played the Ottawa Senators in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal in 2007.

"We got smoked," Armstrong said of Ottawa's five-game romp.

The Penguins then went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, losing in six games to the Detroit Red Wings -- not that Armstrong was around to experience it. Prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, he was sent to the Atlanta Thrashers as part of a six-player trade that brought Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to the Penguins.

The following season, Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup.

"I remember being pretty jealous about it," Armstrong joked, a move into a new house in Pittsburgh not complete when he was traded to Atlanta. "Buying that house was a jinx."

He played two full seasons in Atlanta, two more for the Toronto Maple Leafs and for the Canadiens in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season before finishing his career in Sweden, playing 47 games for the Växjö Lakers. Presumably, 10 playoff games for the Lakers didn't quite match the spine-tingling intensity he felt in Pittsburgh and Montreal.

With his self-deprecating sense of humor, Armstrong, 33, was always one of the best interviews in the dressing room. In Montreal, he laughed in the face of hockey analytics, saying his puck-possession statistics would be weak given his role was primarily to chase the opponent around the rink and try to take it off him.

Armstrong and his wife, Melissa, have settled back in Pittsburgh with their three young children, moving into the jinx house they'd rented for a few years to now-retired Penguins forward Craig Adams.

Armstrong was in Red Deer, Alberta, covering the Memorial Cup for Sportsnet when he got a call from his radio station pitching him the Stanley Cup Final.

"I told them, 'Heck, yeah,'" said Armstrong, who arrived in Pittsburgh in time to report on Game 1.

He has been impressed by the Penguins all season, even during the days when it seemed they wouldn't make the playoffs. Pittsburgh's style of play, he said, might be changing the way teams of the future will be built.

"They've kind bucked the trend of what NHL hockey is supposed to be like," Armstrong said. "I'd say, 'They need a big, strong [defense], they need this guy, that guy, a big power forward, somebody with some bite.' I'd wonder how they could possibly match up against a team and then they'd beat them handily.

"They've surprised me. They've been a great story, really awesome. They're changing hockey. This is a copycat league. You see the way these guys play with speed and transition. … I've described them as mosquitoes, coming at you, darting around as you swat them away, but they keep coming. They're like a whole other animal. I don't think a lot of teams have seen anything like this."

Video: Breaking down Nick Bonino's Game 1 winner

Armstrong recalls teams on which he played trying to replicate, say, the New Jersey Devils penalty-kill, or the style employed by the Red Wings.

The Penguins, he says, have simply gone out and built a team as they've seen fit, without concern for the structure of others.

"The hard thing is to find players with speed, smarts and with skill," Armstrong said. "I played with lots of guys who were fast but couldn't play. But these [Penguins] guys can all play.

"[Defenseman] Trevor Daley, who's been unbelievable, goes down hurt, so they pop in Justin Schultz and he's just like Trevor Daley. It's crazy. The recipe is perfect. The coach [Mike Sullivan] said, 'This is what we are,' and he's coached to what they are and maybe above that."

From his media seat, Armstrong is watching the Penguins and Sharks both as a fan and as a retired player with a sharper point of view.

"When I was playing in Montreal, I'd be up all night watching games," he said. "I have a pretty good gauge of what the League is like and I remember near the end of this season saying, 'The Penguins could win the Stanley Cup,' and people were like, 'Oh, right.' Then they picked up more steam and everyone now is like, 'Holy smokes.'

"Having played here, seeing how passionate Pittsburgh fans are for sports in their city… to see it all happen again, and now live here, to be a part of it, has been a lot of fun."

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