Both Tom Kuhnhackl and Conor Sheary had trouble sleeping going into their NHL playoff debuts.
Kuhnhackl admitted to lying awake the night before, while Sheary said he barely got his pregame nap in that afternoon. And once they lined up in the runway to take the ice for Game 1 against the New York Rangers on Wednesday night at CONSOL Energy Center, that’s when it truly hit them.
“When we came out right before the game and the crowd was just going absolutely crazy and screaming, I’ve never heard it that loud in that building,” Kuhnhackl said. “I had goosebumps. It was just a great feeling, a special feeling to go out there.”
Both rookies admitted that at the beginning, they were focused solely on what would happen when they actually stepped on the ice for the first time.
“The first shift – you just wanted to get it over with,” Kuhnhackl laughed. “You didn’t want to make a mistake; you didn’t want to give up a goal. Just keep it simple.”
“After the first shift, get it out of the way then it’s just hockey from there,” Sheary agreed.
And it was phenomenal hockey from the two of them. They didn’t let the nerves get them off their game. Instead, they channeled that energy into their play and were difference-makers in Pittsburgh’s 5-2 win.
“For them to have not played a playoff game prior to this, I think they handled it really well,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “They were flying out there and it looked like they just used that excitement and energy to their advantage. You could see with the way they played, they didn’t look overwhelmed. They didn’t look like they were watching much out there. They just looked like they were comfortable and playing hard.”
With the Pens only dressing 11 forwards, Sheary got a few shifts with Crosby and Patric Hornqvist. He was incredibly effective on the ice with them and was noticeable with his speed early while the rest of the team struggled to get their legs under them.
Late in the first period, Hornqvist chipped a puck deep and Sheary was able to reach it first. He sent it towards the net, where a crashing Hornqvist put it in to open the scoring and give the rookie his first career playoff point.
The 23-year-old winger was also on the ice for Crosby’s goal that put Pittsburgh up 2-0, and nearly converted a feed from the captain as well.
“Obviously only playing with 11 forwards yesterday he was mixing up all the lines to make sure we all got on the ice and I got a couple shifts with those guys,” Sheary said. “I thought we created opportunities and chances and it was a good start.”
After that, it was Kuhnhackl’s turn to step up.
With a couple of the Pens’ best penalty killers in the box during the third period – Carl Hagelin got a double-minor for high-sticking and Ian Cole was called for roughing – Kuhnhackl was called upon to handle more shorthanded responsibility.
And while he was on the ice when Derek Stepan finished off a perfect play during New York’s two-man advantage to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 2-1, a couple of shifts later Kuhnhackl got it back.
The 24-year-old forward converted a feed from Nick Bonino on an odd-man rush to regain the two-goal lead and swing the momentum back to Pittsburgh’s side. It was Kuhnhackl’s third shorthanded goal of the year, earned while logging a career high 3:15 shorthanded minutes.
“I couldn’t really believe it right away,” Kuhnhackl said of scoring in his NHL postseason debut. “’Bones’ made such a great fake, kind of faking the shot, and then passed it. Slid it to me back-door. I was just glad it went in. I was trying to be ready the whole time in case he makes that pass and glad I was. At the end, I’m very happy the puck went in the net.”
This isn’t the first time Kuhnhackl and Sheary have provided big huge plays in meaningful games for this team. They’ve done a tremendous job of handling the pressure since establishing themselves as legitimate NHL players during the second half of the year, and Kuhnhackl said a lot of that just came with time.
“I think at the start I was just really nervous being around these guys, being up here in this great organization,” Kuhnhackl said. “But I think the more I’ve been up here I feel more and more comfortable just on and off the ice. I think my confidence goes up every practice, every game.”
Kuhnhackl also attributes their success to the bond between all of the young guys who have spent time together in the American Hockey League with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“When I called up, it was me and Bryan Rust,” Kuhnhackl said. “We drove up and he has been up before, so he kind of told me what to do, what not to do, what to expect, that kind of stuff. I hung out with him a lot and it’s just nice when you know a couple guys on your team, that makes you feel a little bit more comfortable.”
Head coach Mike Sullivan is certainly comfortable putting them on the ice in different situations.
“They’re good players,” he said. “That’s what I think. They’re different types of players. But they’re good players in their own right. They’re two guys that have earned their way here through their work ethic and nothing has been handed to them. They’ve earned their stripes the hard way. I have a lot of respect for how hard these guys have worked and what they’ve gone through to accomplish what they have to be part of this team.”