It had been excruciating for Tyler Kennedy watching the first four games of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series as a healthy scratch. But the fast, energetic forward got back in the lineup for Game 5 on Thursday, and he responded with arguably the best game of his career in the Penguins’ 4-0 win.
“I want to win and I’m a positive guy,” he said. “Whatever they ask me I’m going to do. Obviously, it sucks, but I’m a team player and I want to buy in and I have to stay positive when I’m sitting out.
“I felt I wanted to come in and try to play well and try to create some energy for the guys. Obviously, I was more rested than other guys. I tried to come in and play my best.”
He absolutely did.
The highlight? It came seven minutes and 25 seconds into the second period in a scoreless game. It began when Kris Letang collected the puck in his own end. He turned, looked up the ice, and fired a pass to Kennedy, who had just stepped onto the ice as the result of a change, at the opposite blue line.
Kennedy got behind the D, went in on a breakaway, picked his spot and just sniped a shot in the top corner past Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov, getting the Penguins on the board first with a crucial marker.
“I think maybe ‘Duper’ (Pascal Dupuis) was coming off late there and I hung behind there because I saw they turned the puck over,” he said. “‘Tanger’ threaded the needle and gave me a great pass. I just jumped on the ice and kind of saw what was unfolding in our own end.”
The goal was Kennedy’s 11th career playoff goal, giving him 10 points (6G-4A) over his past 12 playoff games. The goal is also Kennedy’s sixth career game-winning goal in the postseason – second among all Penguins since 2007-08. Kennedy’s six playoff game-winning goals rank sixth in team history (assist: Seth Rorabaugh).
But not only did Kennedy score; he brought a tremendous effort to the ice with every shift. And he was rewarded for it. Kennedy started the game on a line with Craig Adams and Joe Vitale, but moved up to play shifts with Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke on the shutdown third line as the game progressed.
“I thought the whole line there, ‘Joey V’ and ‘Addsy,’ they were playing great,” Kennedy said. “I kind of feed of Joey Vitale’s energy and speed.”
It seemed like Kennedy had rocket devices strapped to the bottoms of his skates from the moment he went over the boards. The Islanders are a faster team than the Penguins, but not when Kennedy was on the ice. He went stride-for-stride with every Islander he went against, and used his speed to get it on the forecheck and force turnovers.
“They said just keep it simple and make sure I use the energy in the right ways,” Kennedy said about what the coaches told him to do in this game. “Keep it simple and finish my checks.”
He did that, pairing that speed with tremendous effort and heart. Kennedy didn’t get beaten to a puck and hustled as hard as he could. The most telling example of that came right before his goal. Vitale had used his speed to power around a defender and will the puck to the net. The Islanders tried to clear, but Kennedy sprinted to the player with the puck (who had a huge head start), stripped him of the puck and kept play from leaving the zone.
Before he was even asked about the play of his teammates, captain Sidney Crosby began talking about the way Kennedy and Vitale played tonight and spoke highly of their performances.
“(Kennedy and) Joey V., those guys really set the tone for our team,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “You see it time and time again in the playoffs. Guys step up and those guys were huge for us tonight.”