When asked about the young players on his roster who will be experiencing the NHL playoffs for the first time in their careers, a smile spread across Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan’s face as he gave his answer.
“I think they’re all excited to be a part of it,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s one of the greatest things about being a young player, is having the opportunity to participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s exciting.
“I think it’s what we all grow up and aspire to do at some point in your hockey life, and so these guys are going to get a great opportunity. I think they’re thrilled about it.”
Justin Schultz certainly is.
Though the 25-year-old defenseman, acquired from Edmonton at the trade deadline, has been in the league for a while, he has yet to experience the postseason as the Oilers did not advance past the regular season in each of his four years there.
“It’s exciting,” Schultz said. “That’s really the only word I can put there. It’s something you work towards and for it to finally be here is great. They have a lot of experience here winning. We had a good stretch run and there is a lot of confidence in this room right now. Hopefully we can keep that going into the playoffs.”
In addition to Schultz, Tom Kuhnhackl, Conor Sheary and Oskar Sundqvist are a few of the healthy players also looking to make their debuts this postseason.
And while they’re all rookies, they certainly haven’t looked inexperienced with the way they’ve stepped up in big, meaningful games for Pittsburgh.
Kuhnhackl didn’t get called up to the Penguins until Jan. 6. While at the time he didn’t know what kind of role he’d take with the team, the 24-year-old winger ended up earning a two-year, one-way contract extension running through the 2017-18 campaign and finished the season strong with four points in his last five games.
“Obviously it’s really exciting for me,” Kuhnhackl said. “When the season started, I didn’t think I was going to be here and be in this position, so it’s really special for me.”
In a crucial game late in the season, the Pens traveled to Madison Square Garden for a key divisional battle with the Rangers on March 13. Sheary stepped up and recorded his first career two-goal game with a pair of tallies against Henrik Lundqvist in the Pens’ 5-3 win.
Sheary finished the season strong, scoring a big goal in a 4-3 overtime win over Washington in Pittsburgh’s second-to-last game of the regular season after having a terrific performance against Philadelphia a few days earlier. The 23-year-old winger said he feels ready for the playoffs and to handle the first-time pressure.
“Just keep doing what I’m doing,” Sheary said of his mentality. “It’s still hockey. It’s still the same game. I think just heading into it just have that mindset, and just play my own game and see where it can take me.”
Sundqvist is another recent call-up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton who is readying himself for his first postseason. The 22-year-old also had a goal this month, his coming against the Islanders, and assisted Sheary’s goal against the Capitals – while undertaking first-line center duties with Sidney Crosby out for the finale against the Flyers.
“It’s exciting,” Sundqvist said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, and it’s going to be a new experience for me. It’s not going to be the same as Sweden. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Sullivan said he expects the veteran group of players surrounding those guys to help them along the way. And looking around the Penguins’ locker room, there are certainly a lot of guys who have playoff experience.
But for some of those veterans, this is the first time they are entering the postseason in Pittsburgh gold. Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley, Eric Fehr, Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel are all making their Penguins playoff debuts, and they are happy to be here.
Cullen has had an impressive playoff career, dressing in 74 postseason games. He won a Stanley Cup as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 along with Pens general manager Jim Rutherford, and he has earned 45 points (12G-29A) in his NHL playoff career.
He clearly knows what to expect heading into the first round of playoffs, and he is happy to be a member of a team that shares his experience.
“It’s fun. I’m excited,” Cullen said. “I came here to hopefully go on a long playoff run, and the Penguins have been a very successful organization over the last stretch, so I’m excited.”
Fehr has yet to acquire a Stanley Cup championship, but he had his fair share of playoff experience as a member of the Washington Capitals. He competed in 37 playoff games with the Capitals and he has tallied five career goals.
Fehr knows what it’s like to get knocked out in the early stages of a playoff run, but he thinks the Penguins are in a good spot at the moment.
“I think we’re pretty confident where we are as a team right now,” Fehr explained. “Once we finally got that spot locked up our team was pretty playoff focused, so I’m ready.”
Prior to being acquired by the Penguins, Daley competed in five playoff runs with Dallas. He played in 35 playoff games with the Stars and earned seven points (4G-3A).
Just like Fehr, Daley has a lot of faith in his current teammates and is excited to face the challenges of the postseason with the Penguins.
“It feels great,” Daley said. “Especially when you’ve got such a good team, a good group in here. It’s an exciting time of the year. You play 82 games to get to this point, so it’s a fun time. It’s a stressful time, but it’s a time where you get to find out a lot about yourself.”
Bonino has played in 30 playoff games for Anaheim and Vancouver, earning 15 points (8G-7A). Kessel has competed in 22 playoff games for Boston and Toronto and tallied an impressive 21 points (13G, 8A). Their linemate Hagelin skated in 73 playoff games with the Rangers and recorded 26 points (12G-14A) – with one of those goals being the series-clinching overtime game-winner that ended Pittsburgh’s season last year.
Throughout the regular season, all of these first-year Penguins have added a ton of depth to the team. Now their playoff experience is going to help propel the team another step forward at the time it matters most.Written by CJ Harvey and Ashley Vesci