Getting your first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs is never an easy thing.
Just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins as nearly three-quarters of their roster were christened to NHL postseason hockey a year ago in a first-round loss to Ottawa.
The Penguins were able to parlay those tough lessons learned into a sweep over the Senators this year.
However, this time around, only two of the Penguins starters experienced their first playoff action – rookies Kris Letang and Tyler Kennedy.
Sure, they had heard all about the postseason – the atmosphere, the intensity and the grind. Yet, there’s nothing like going through it yourself.
“For sure, it’s hard. It’s never easy when you’re in the playoffs. Ottawa was a pretty good team. For the first experience, it was kind of what I was expecting. They played hard and finished all their checks. It was a pretty good experience and I think it worked pretty well for me,” Letang said. “That’s something you have to go through yourself. Even if someone told me it was going to be tough, I don’t know what that means for him or for me. So, I go there and just learn and get some experience. I think the first series was what I was expecting. They worked hard and finished all their checks; the speed of the game was quicker and everyone stepped up. It’s pretty intense.”
Kennedy agrees: “It was probably more than I expected. You never know until you get into it. The games are very intense. Every shift is like your last shift, so you have to bear down. It’s great.
“I think I benefitted from the older guys. They helped me out a bit and let me know what was coming. I think they prepared me.”
Kennedy, a winger, brought energy to the Penguins’ third line and finished the first round with two assists and a plus-2 rating in the four-game sweep of Ottawa.
“The biggest thing was just playing my game and trying to get my feet under me my first couple shifts. That’s all I tried to do,” he said. “Our lines were firing on all cylinders and I think that’s what we need to go as far as we can and win the Stanley Cup. We have to get everyone going and I think that’s what we’re doing right now.”
Letang, a defenseman, did not register a point. Yet, he played sound hockey and finished with a plus-2 rating as well.
“Tanger is a great player. He has a ton of skill,” Kennedy said. “That’s why he’s here right now. He has a ton of potential, too.”
Keeping their games simple was the key for Kennedy and Letang.
“For sure, TK has been doing his job really intensely on the forecheck and tried to create some offense,” Letang said. “For my part, I have to stay solid defensively and when I can join the rush, I’ll join the rush and try to create some offense and put some shots on net on the power play.”
After a week off, the Penguins are focused going into the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Rangers.
“They are going to come out hard and I am going to prepare like every game is my last one,” Kennedy said.
Still, the youthful Penguins have managed to keep a positive and fun atmosphere when possible during the postseason.
“The whole team is pretty young. Even Gary [Roberts] has some fun with everyone. It’s great,” Letang said. “We have a really good team with really good chemistry. It’s just nice to see what is happening to us now.”