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Inside Scoop: Pens' routines and superstitions

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Before a morning skate against the New York Rangers earlier this season, Jake Guentzel was making the lengthy trek from the visiting locker room to the ice at Madison Square Garden - and he was stressed.

That's because both he and Carter Rowney were about to be the first players on the ice, beating Bryan Rust - which is usually unheard of.

"I was going to stay in the locker room (until Rust was ready)," Guentzel said when Pens assistant equipment manager JC Ihrig jokingly asked where Rust was. When Rust finally did make it out - extremely late by his standards - Ihrig told him about how the guys had debated whether or not they should wait for him.

"Sometimes you've got to adapt," Rust said with a laugh.

Adapting is not something these hockey players do often, if they can help it. Most of them pick up habits at some point during their careers and just stick with them, the origins long forgotten. Then, every season, they figure out how to adjust with their teammates' tendencies until the group has figured out a system and an order that works for everyone.

At that point, they stick to the routine unless there are injuries, additions, departures or just bad luck. It can makes things interesting for newcomers, like Ryan Reaves, who had a tough time getting his routine sorted out after being traded to the organization this summer.

"This team is impossible because everybody's so superstitious," he laughed. "Going out on the ice, getting your puck in the half moon warmups, where to park. Literally like the first two weeks I came in and I was just like, 'tell me where I can go and where I can't go and I'll just fill in the slots.'"

***

It starts with Rust at morning skate, who said he always likes to be on the ice "substantially early," at least 15 minutes before the scheduled start time if he can. "That's usually my goal and usually there's no one on by then," he said.

The reason for that is Rust feels like it gets him in the right mindset and gets his legs looser than they would if he stretched in the locker room. "I feel like things on the ice you can't really replicate, so to be out there and just to feel the puck a little bit kind of warms up the body," he explained.

Rust's early departure from the locker room hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates.

"I know Kuhny (Tom Kuhnhackl) gives me a hard time about it, a few other guys do, too," Rust said. "But I guess it's just one of those things that I've been doing forever."

He's usually joined shortly after by other young guys, including Guentzel. As soon as Guentzel gets on the bench, he takes a puck that is part of the stack on the bench and tries to land it into the closest faceoff circle curling-style until he gets it. Other than that, it's relatively laid-back in terms of routines and superstitions. The biggest one is usually that the older guys, like Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist, tend to leave the ice first.

***

After the game-day skate (which is optional most of the time) and their video meeting, the Pens are done with team-related duties for the morning. They go back home or to their hotel rooms and have the next few hours to themselves, which many of them spend taking pregame naps.

Their next regimented routine is coming out of the locker room and taking the ice for warmups, which has a specific order every time. And pretty much everybody knows the story of how Evgeni Malkin came to be the last player down the runway.

"My first year here, I used to go out last," Sidney Crosby told WHIRL Magazine. "'Geno' used to go out last whenever he played in Russia. In our first game together, we were both used to going out last. We got to that spot where it was time to go out on the ice, and we were both looking at each other. It was funny and awkward because he didn't speak a lot of English. I was trying to talk it out with him. He just looked at me and said, 'Three years (in the Russian) Super League.'" Which trumped Crosby's one season in the NHL.

It's not quite as interesting when it comes to Brian Dumoulin being the first skater to follow the goaltender onto the ice.

"It wasn't something that I always did," Dumoulin said. "No one wanted to go first when I first got here and I was like, 'I don't really care. I'll go first.' Everyone was used to going in their same spot. And I was like 'well, I'll go, whatever' (laughs). And then it seems like everyone just kind of has their routine, where they go, and it carries on down."

Reaves was the first one out of the tunnel during his time with the Blues, but he didn't want to take that away from Dumoulin when he joined the Penguins.

"I was always first in St. Louis, so I just stood at the front and I looked at everybody and said 'wherever you want me to go, I'll go,'" Reaves said. "Because I'm not that superstitious."

Which isn't entirely true, considering he started out going right after Dumoulin, but then he and Hornqvist switched - "because we were losing."

From there, the current order goes as follows…

Hagelin
Maatta
Rust
Kuhnhackl
Schultz
Ruhwedel
Sheary
Sheahan
Guentzel
Rowney
Simon 
Oleksiak
Aston-Reese
Cole
Hunwick
Kessel
Letang
Crosby
Malkin

***

The order of the tunnel is the same for both the start of the game and of warmups, and that's where there is the most going on. The biggest thing, as Daniel Sprong joked to me earlier this year, is "you don't want to get in Sid's way or Geno's. You've got to keep an eye out for those two."

When the players first take the ice, many of them skate around and shoot into an empty net while their teammates stretch and get loose in different areas of the ice. For example, Malkin is in the faceoff circle to the left of the net; Reaves is against the boards on the blue line while Crosby is at the faceoff circle right near him at the blue line; Letang is at the opposite faceoff circle; and Murray goes to the red line, usually next to the opposing team's goalie.

As everybody is finishing their individual routines - like Crosby stickhandling through the McDonald's Golden Arches - Letang gathers the pucks that have been shot into the empty net and distributes them to the blue line, something he says he was volunteered for after Matt Cooke left.

Murray takes the net and the players skate in from the blue line and shoot. After Murray feels a few pucks, the players scatter and again begin firing into the empty cage, careful not to hit Letang, who is again gathers the pucks and re-distributes them - this time to the corners.

The players then line up in the corners. On one side, Crosby is first and Malkin is second; on the other side, Kessel is first and Reaves is second. Crosby skates up to the blue line and curls in, where he gets a pass from Malkin, who then goes as Crosby is shooting.

"I go second behind Phil, but then I've got to wait for Geno to come behind me because he's got to go with Sid and crisscross," Reaves said. "Which turns into an absolute mess because then everybody's flying by and I'm trying to slow down, people are in the middle."

While Guentzel waits in line, he has a routine he's arranged with Rust that fans get a kick out of.

"I don't really know how it started," Guentzel said. "'Rusty' hit me one time and I just kind of spun one way and I just kind of started spinning the other way, and somehow I got to three spins."

Three spins each way? I ask. "I go one the one way and three back," Guentzel corrected me. "It started last year during the regular season and then, I don't know, I see videos of it all the time. People are really interested in it."

Rust recently missed 11 games with an upper-body injury, and the first night he was out, Guentzel scrambled to find someone who would check him into the boards.

"The first time he went out I went into panic mode," Guentzel recalled with a laugh. "I was like 'oh no, who am I going to ask.' So then I just asked the first person. I think I asked (Carter Rowney) and then 'Rowns' got hurt. Then I'm like, 'oh God.'" The morning before Rust returned, Guentzel was relieved. "Hopefully he remembers. I'll just give him the death stare until he remembers," Guentzel laughed.

From there, they do various other drills - including a half-moon warmup, where everybody has a certain order to shoot, along with breakouts as forward lines and D-pairs - where they find a balance between getting ready individually and as a team.

"Everyone kind of observes and finds what works for them and tries to work in," Crosby said. "It's a team sport, so ultimately when you're going out there for warmups, you're trying to get your goalie ready, you're working on a few things. But you also have to get yourself individually too. So you're constantly kind of balancing both and everyone kind of gives on stuff. It's just the way it is."

Crosby insists that it's not perfectly choreographed, but it does start to gain a certain level of flow as the year goes on.

"Everyone just can kind of observe and find 'OK, this is what I like to do, where can I do it, how much time do I have,'" he said. "But it's crazy, once you kind of get into the routine everyone just kind of does their thing. Just like clockwork."

Speaking of clockwork, guys start heading to the locker room with about two minutes left. Malkin is the last to take the ice, and the last to leave. He stares up at the videoboard, watching the time tick down. At that point, head athletic trainer Chris Stewart leaves the bench and comes onto the ice.

Once the clock hits 0:00, Malkin takes a few strides, shoots a puck into the empty net, collects another one, and shoots it (relatively softly) at Stewart's foot. It's one of those things where Stewart said they don't know when it started, it just started, and now they have to do it every single game.

***

Finally, if the team is on the road, there's unofficially assigned seats for both the bus and the plane.

On the bus, there is one seat that must be avoided at all costs. That's the sixth row back on the right, which is occupied by Malkin.

On the plane, there is one seat that has remained open, and that's the one next to Crosby. It was occupied by Marc-Andre Fleury for the first 12 seasons of Crosby's career until the goaltender was claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft.

"He wasn't a card player and he liked to play SoCom, we started off playing SoCom pretty young," Crosby said. "I don't know, I think I just liked being by a goalie. I don't know why (we started sitting together). It was probably me (laughs). I think he liked the window, I liked an aisle. I don't know which one it was, but it was probably a handful of reasons why."

Twelve years together is a long time, so when Crosby boarded the plane for the team's first road trip of the season to Chicago on Oct. 5, it definitely felt odd.

"It's been different," Crosby admitted with a smile. "Usually you're breaking down something. When you're sitting beside somebody, you're either talking about the game or an upcoming game, just life in general. It's a little weird the first few flights when you've got an empty chair next to you and you're used to either listening to someone tell you about something or you're used to spilling your guts out, one of the two."

Right now, that seat next to Crosby is empty, and with his new team, Fleury texted Crosby that he's sitting in the same seat he had on the Penguins' plane and leaving the seat next to him open, too.

"He said he's not sitting by anybody. It might just stick," Crosby grinned.

The card game on the plane also saw some re-arranging with the departures of Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz. Kris Letang and Ryan Reaves joined Malkin and Phil Kessel for the loud and raucous games of 13-Up set up in the one area of the plane that has two sets of seats facing each other.

The consistency is remarkable, as they play on every single flight, keeping score on a sheet of paper underneath their numbers: 58, 71, 75 and 81. The games take forever, so they've come to an agreement that they don't have to end until they land back home in Pittsburgh, which allows them to pick up where they leave off on different flights.

"I always play cards. I put my foot down on that," Reaves said. "I was playing cards. I live for cards on the plane, that's my favorite thing in the world."

Apart from that, guys just slot into wherever there are openings and usually stick with them, unless something frees up. For example, the seats beside Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin in their back-to-back rows were vacated this season, so the Swedes moved next to each other.

***

Right now, the guys are in a good groove. They've been winning games and seem to have a routine set. But it does make Riley Sheahan laugh when thinking about how things were when he first arrived.

"I think I took Sid's puck once in warmups and was in Geno's spot one time when he came and kicked me out," he said. "Just stuff like that, you don't know. But you learn pretty quickly and develop your own routine. Now it's not an issue because you stay out of some guys' way. It's all fun and games. No one is going to have hard feelings if you screw something up, but you don't want to wreck someone's routine or superstition."

Especially not Crosby's. Sheahan's stall is adjacent to his in the locker room, and he said that he was extra careful not to touch anything when first arriving.

"I sit beside the most superstitious guy ever," Sheahan joked. "He's trying to get me to be more superstitious and I'm fine if I screw something up. Then I'm in my own head. So I just go with the flow. I have my basic routine, but I don't get too worried about it."

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