On Sunday night, the Pens’ third line made huge contributions to help the team defeat the Washington Capitals 6-2.
Matt Cullen, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl combined for a total of seven points, with the German rookie forward ending up with a career-high three-point night after contributing the game-winning-goal and two assists.
“They were terrific,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think they bring so much energy to our team. They’re hard to play against. We use them obviously against top lines each and every night, and they get the job done. They quietly go about their business.
“Tonight they chipped in on the offensive side of the puck, but they’re three really good hockey players that can play at both ends of the rink. I think they play the game the right way. Their attention to detail is awesome, and I thought they were a big part of our success tonight.”
Both of Kuhnhackl’s assists were fantastic heads-up plays. On Rust’s goal, which opened the scoring after a shaky first six minutes for Pittsburgh, Kuhnhackl made a spin move and hit Rust with a puck in the high slot – giving him a mini-breakaway with the goalie.
“To be honest, I don’t know where that came from,” Kuhnhackl laughed. “I knew we had kind of a 3-on-2 and Cullen made a great play to the middle, and I knew ‘Rusty’ was somewhere over there. The spin move was actually the only play I had, and I’m glad I found him.”
Later in the game, Kuhnhackl made a very similar play to assist Cullen’s goal. After receiving a pass from Olli Maatta, he carried the puck into the offensive zone and held up at the blue line to buy time.
Kuhnhackl was then able to hit Cullen with a pass that sent him in one on one with Capital’s goaltender Braden Holtby.
“It was a great play by him,” Cullen said. “I thought he had a really good game as far as he was poised with the puck. He held it and made little plays. I think that’s one thing that he’s really improved on. Instead of just chipping at it, he’s holding it for an extra second and looking for a play. That was great and a really nice pass.”
But Kuhnhackl’s goal was by far his biggest play of the night. After Sidney Crosby was robbed of a power-play goal during an early whistle, Caps forward Andre Burakovsky scored on a breakaway out of the box to erase a 2-0 deficit.
But just 54 seconds later, Kuhnhackl snatched the momentum right back onto Pittsburgh’s side – the first of four unanswered goals by the Pens.
“That's a huge goal,” Crosby said. “Who knows what would happen if we don't get a quick one like that and grab the momentum back right away?”
Kuhnhackl earned his goal by doing what he does best, getting into the dirty areas. Kuhnhackl skated hard into the offensive zone to chase down a broken play, and he forced Capitals defensemen Nate Schmidt to cause a turnover.
Cullen retrieved the loose puck and set Kuhnhackl up with a perfect one-timer.
“I was kind of surprised that I was so open, but I’m just glad that I could lift the puck and that it went in,” Kuhnhackl said.
Kuhnhackl now has nine points (3G-6A) in his rookie season, and tonight was his second multi-point effort this season – the other coming in Pittsburgh’s 5-3 win over the Rangers on March 13.
Kuhnhackl recently signed a two-year, one-way contract extension with an annual value of $625,000, and it’s safe to assume that after a performance like tonight’s the organization is happy that he will be around for awhile.
“It’s a dream come true for me that I’m here with all these guys in this great organization, and I’m just enjoying my time here,” Kuhnhackl said.
It's impressive what Kuhnhackl has gone through to get to this point.
Kuhnhackl, who turned 24 just 12 days after premiering with the Penguins, was drafted by Pittsburgh in the fourth round (110th overall) of the 2010 NHL Draft. The following year, he scored 39 goals with Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League.
After dealing with numerous injuries over the next few seasons, Kuhnhackl had a strong 2014-15 campaign with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton – setting career-highs in games played (72), goals (12), assists (18) and points (30).
Prior to being recalled to the Penguins this season, Kuhnhackl tallied 15 points (7G-8A) in 23 AHL games with WBS.
Kuhnhackl’s focus since turning pro has always been on being responsible, but he certainly has offensive talent – and that skill was on display against the Caps.
“I think I changed my game the last couple years to be more defensively reliable, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that lately, and I’m glad that the offensive part came back (Sunday),” Kuhnhackl explained.
Sullivan has seen a lot of progress in Kuhnhackl’s game, and he expects him to continue to get better as he goes along. After all, this is only his rookie season.
“As far as his development this year, his pace has improved, his decision making and how quickly he makes those decisions has improved, and part of that is just establishing himself in this league and being forced to have to play at a higher tempo because that’s the difference between the NHL and every other league in the world,” Sullivan explained. “Certainly we appreciate what he brings, and we value what he brings to this team.”