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Speed has Penguins on fast track in playoffs

'Totally different team' built by GM Rutherford for coach Sullivan

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- General manager Jim Rutherford has pulled off a 7-10 split that has the Pittsburgh Penguins that much closer to winning the Stanley Cup.

Seven skaters who played for the Penguins against the New York Rangers in Eastern Conference First Round last season were on the ice Saturday at Consol Energy Center, helping Pittsburgh eliminate the Rangers in five games, reversing the result of last year.

Ten players who had a role in Pittsburgh's 6-3 series-clinching Game 5 win were either in another organization or in the American Hockey League last season.

Those two numbers, 7 and 10, are telling of what Rutherford has done in Pittsburgh in the past 12 months, because a team that once looked perilously thin is now as fat with good players as it has been in a long time.

"It's a totally different team," said Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang, who along with defense partner Olli Maatta was injured and unable to play in the series last season.

Rutherford deserves a lot of the credit. So does coach Mike Sullivan, who has identified and connected with this team incredibly well since taking over for Mike Johnston on Dec. 11.

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm5: Hagelin puts it past Lundqvist

The Penguins are fast and resilient because that's what he wants them to be and that's what they should be.

But credit should also go to members of Pittsburgh's previous administration -- Ray Shero, Tom Fitzgerald and John Hynes -- who are now trying to build a similar team with the New Jersey Devils.

Without them, the Penguins might not have forwards Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, and goalie Matt Murray. All four were called up from the AHL this season and played a big role in defeating the Rangers.

Shero and Fitzgerald drafted or signed them. Hynes coached them in the AHL before giving way to Sullivan, who was ready to accept them as NHL players when he got the job in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh might be heading back to New York for a Game 6 if not for them.

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm5: Murray denies Girardi's chance

Rust had two goals and an assist Saturday. Sheary scored his second goal of the series and was a thorn in the Rangers side in all five games. Kuhnhackl had an assist and was plus-2. Murray made 38 saves and allowed four goals on 89 shots in his three starts. He is playing because Fleury is out with a concussion.

"Any team that plans on going really deep you really benefit from having a lot of depth," Penguins center Matt Cullen said. "This series, that really helped us a lot."

Cullen, who was with the Nashville Predators last season, said he didn't realize how deep the Penguins were until late in the season, when they were dealing with a number of injuries to key players: centers Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino, and Fleury. That's when Sheary, Rust, Kuhnhackl and Murray got their chance.

That they already had experience with Sullivan made a big difference. Instead of trying to impress the coach and being worried that they'd be benched for any mistake, they had confidence he knew them well enough to know what kind of impact they could make.

"I was fortunate to have the opportunity to coach them and see them perform, and when the change was made and opportunities presented themselves for lineup positions at the NHL level, I knew these guys could do it," Sullivan said. "I knew they were capable. And I believed in them. I trusted them. You can see what I had the opportunity to see. They help us win."

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm5: Kessel rifles PPG past Lundqvist

Phil Kessel is helping the Penguins win too. The wing was the big offseason addition, the big splash in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it took until Malkin's injury in March for Kessel to find a home on a line with Bonino and Carl Hagelin. Kessel had three goals and five points in the series.

Rutherford is convinced Kessel could play with Malkin or Crosby and that it didn't work because they "tried too hard instead of just letting things unfold for them."

That's irrelevant now.

"There is no use in changing with the chemistry of Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel," Rutherford said.

We'll get to Hagelin and Bonino, two more players who weren't in Pittsburgh last season, but to keep this in chronological order, let's first get to defenseman Trevor Daley.

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm5: Rust buries puck past Lundqvist

The Penguins already had the AHL call-ups in the organization. They added Kessel, Bonino, Cullen and Eric Fehr in the offseason. But that wasn't enough.

Rutherford identified the trade for Daley on Dec. 14 as the first swing moment in the Penguins' speed movement.

Daley, a slick-skating, puck-moving defenseman, came from the Chicago Blackhawks. Rob Scuderi, a plodding, stay-at-home defenseman went the other way.

"We wanted to be a faster team," Rutherford said. "The Eastern Conference to me is more of a skating conference. It was something we needed to change."

The Penguins got even faster about a month later, when Rutherford acquired Hagelin from the Anaheim Ducks in a trade for David Perron. Once Rutherford saw how Sullivan was trying to get the Penguins to play, he knew they needed a fast wing.

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm5: Sheary beats Lundqvist from the slot

But let's not forget about Bonino either, because adding him allowed the Penguins to add Fehr, who is playing on their second line with Malkin and Chris Kunitz.

Bonino, with the Vancouver Canucks last season, came to Pittsburgh in a trade for Brandon Sutter. Rutherford wanted Bonino because he was cheaper than Sutter, could fill the same role, and the salary-cap space freed the room to sign Fehr.

Bonino has proved invaluable because he's the center who got Kessel going.

"When you add guys like Sheary and Rust into your lineup and they're playing a lot of minutes, those guys really make your team faster," Cullen said. "You add Carl halfway through the year, he makes your team a lot faster. Adding Daley makes you faster. Piece by piece we got faster."

Piece by piece, the Penguins got better.

"We wanted to get that young energy put in, and we also wanted to get faster and build good character in the team," Rutherford said. "All those things came together."

It's hard to pull off a 7-10 split. Rutherford has done it. The Penguins are for real.

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