What a difference a year makes for Justin Schultz.
Heading into the 2016 postseason, he was the seventh defenseman for Game 1 of the First Round against the New York Rangers and played less than six minutes in his playoff debut.
From there, Schultz was a healthy scratch for the rest of that series and played just two games in the Second Round against Washington after Olli Maatta was hurt.
Schultz stayed in the lineup for the Eastern Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final after Trevor Daley broke his ankle, but played just 7:33 minutes in Game 6 of the Cup-clinching victory.
"I got to play the last two rounds, the big rounds, so I learned a lot," Schultz said. "I got a lot of experience and I think it's going to help me this year going into the playoffs."
This year, Schultz is entering the 2017 postseason as a top defenseman for the Pens. The 26 year-old had his best pro year, posting career highs across the board in goals (12), assists (39), points (51) and plus-minus (+27), and will be relied on heavily with Kris Letang out for the entire playoffs with a herniated disc.
"It's definitely a different feeling," Schultz admitted. "Just being ready to play every night now and obviously last year was kind of in and out, so it's a good opportunity for me to improve my game and help this team win."
Not having Letang is obviously a huge loss, but Schultz is ready to continue taking on the added responsibilities that come with his departure, like quarterbacking the first power-play unit. He practiced there Tuesday with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist.
"It's a good opportunity," Schultz said. "Obviously we wish we had 'Tanger' in there, but I think with the D group we have, it's similar to last year. We'll be fine, everyone's been doing a good job of stepping up. He's been out for a while, so it's not anything new to us and we'll be ready for tomorrow."