In the morning skate ahead of Sunday's contest against Chicago, Ian Cole called Matt Hunwick a huge asset to the team.
In his first game back since missing 15 contests with a concussion, Hunwick brought truth to those words through his play in the Penguins' 2-1 loss to Chicago. He contributed at both ends of the ice, scoring the Penguins' only goal - which came shorthanded - while coming up with six blocked shots.
"'Hunny' is a great hockey player," Cole said. "We obviously signed him for a reason. He's a great hockey player, even in the short time he's played he's contributed a ton to this team. He's a great skater, he plays fast, and that's something we try to do on this team. He's a huge asset to this team and whatever the lineup may be, whenever he gets back, it'll be a huge thing to have him back."
And for Hunwick, it felt good to be back in game action for the first time since Oct. 14.
"It feels nice to be back with the guys," Hunwick said. "I had been around the team for a few weeks now, but I haven't been full contact, haven't been full go until recently. I'm just happy to be back with the group. It sucks coming back and losing the first game, but it's nice to be back."
Hunwick was a valuable contributor to the Penguins' penalty kill in his first six games prior to his injury. The shorthanded unit struggled in his absence, and it was only fitting that Hunwick's biggest contribution this game came with the Penguins down a man.
On a penalty kill in the third period, Riley Sheahan took the puck and brought it into the offensive zone before being held up along the half boards. Sheahan sauced a pass across the zone to Hunwick, who jumped onto the ice after a change.
Hunwick caught the puck on his backhand, took a stride towards the net and backhanded a shot towards the slot that deflected off the stick of Duncan Keith and evaded Corey Crawford.
"It was a pretty simple play," Hunwick said. "Riley had it on the wall and I had just come on the ice so I figured I'd leak in there. I think some of their guys were changing, he made a good pass over to me and I was just trying to get it over to Tommy, a fortunate bounce but I'll take it."
The Penguins surrendered a shorthanded tally the next shift, but it was a mixture of bad luck and skill, as Artem Anisimov showed a nifty use of hands, corralling a shot off the boards and putting it on frame before Matt Murray could get back in position.
"Right after our goal, they scored, we have to be better on the penalty kill," Hunwick said. "We did a lot of really good things, but Murray saved us a bailed us out too many times I think on the penalty kill."
Hunwick's memorable outing tonight wasn't just reserved to his goal either. In the second period, Hunwick blocked a shot, and the rebound kicked out to a Blackhawks forward. Hunwick slid into the crease and was able to block the second shot, a desperation save from the defenseman on the Blackhawks' rebound attempt.
When dealing with a concussion, it's tricky because the recovery time isn't standard. Hunwick started skating with the team back during their western Canada trip, then spent time off the ice before re-joining the team on the ice and making his return tonight.
After missing a stretch of time, it takes a while to get the timing back as nothing replicates game speed. With a concussion, sometimes it takes receiving a hit before a player can settle in and play their game, and Hunwick definitely got better as the game progressed, leading to his third period goal.
"I think my legs felt good tonight," Hunwick said. "Overall I felt pretty good after being out that long. I think you get into it, not try to overextend your shifts early on, I think you can lose your legs that way. I tried to keep it simple and smart early on, and for the most part I think I did that.
"I thought Matt had a good game," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "I thought as the game went on he got better, his timing got better. You can see how his skating has an influence on helping us get out of our end zone. He's such a good skater, he's a mobile guy, he defends well. I thought as the game went on he got stronger."