Justin Schultz's goal this summer was to return to form after dealing with a serious injury last season that forced him to miss all but 29 games. If the preseason is any indication, Schultz is well on his way to accomplishing that goal.
"He's had a hell of a camp," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said.
The 29-year-old defenseman has looked so good, it's almost easy to forget what he went through after fracturing his left leg in the fourth game of last season on Oct. 13 at Montreal.
The injury was a scary one, as Schultz's left leg was caught awkwardly under him as he fell to the ice following a check in the corner by Tomas Plekanec. Schultz appeared to be in shock right after and required help to the locker room, not putting any weight down on his leg.
He underwent surgery the following day and from there the long road to recovery began. Schultz missed 53 games before returning to the lineup four months later on Feb. 16 vs. Calgary.
But as if returning to game action after such a serious injury and rehab process wasn't grueling enough, Schultz had to jump into the lineup right down the stretch as the Penguins were in the middle of a dogfight for a playoff spot.
"It was a real tough spot," Sullivan said. "When you miss that much time in a season and then you get thrown into the fire when the stakes are the highest, it's never an easy scenario for a player."
And to top it off, the Penguins were dealing with a depleted blue line, losing Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta and Chad Ruhwedel at different points down the stretch. So not only did Schultz have to step in; he had to step up when he wasn't feeling completely back to his old self.
"It was definitely a weird year," Schultz said. "I missed so many games there. When I came back, wasn't the same. I felt like I was there, but just didn't have that jump that I normally have. I wasn't in pain or anything, it was just a strength issue. That's going to happen coming into that time of year when teams are ramping up for the playoffs."
While no player likes to have a long offseason, Schultz tried to make the most of it by using all of that time off to work on returning to form.
"I think I took advantage of it and really worked on strengthening that leg and getting back to what I was before the injury," he said. "I feel good right now, so hopefully that continues."
And he looks fantastic. Schultz appeared in three of Pittsburgh's six preseason games and collected a pair of assists in each one, giving him a team-leading six points in the preseasopn. What stands out the most about his play thus far is that he isn't hesitating to shoot the puck when he gets the chance.
"I'm trying to (shoot more)," Schultz said. "Our forwards do a pretty good job of getting to the net and creating screens, so as much as we can get it to the net, that's going to help us. It's not something I really think about, it's just if it's there, why not?"
Schultz did that three times in the last two games. In Pittsburgh's 4-2 win over Detroit on Sept. 25, Schultz wound up and took a slapshot that Brandon Tanev deflected in, and then skated up to the bottom of the circle before throwing a puck to the crease that Bryan Rust deflected in.
Sullivan especially loved the play Schultz made in Pittsburgh's 3-2 shootout loss to Buffalo on Sept. 28.
"He's such a good offensive player," Sullivan said of Schultz that night. "He's really good along the offensive blue line. (Patric Hornqvist)'s tip in the first period was an example of it. He's got his head up, he scales the line so well, he creates a shot lane. Those are the things that he does for us."
When Schultz is at his best, some of the other things he does for the Penguins include helping their transition game and power play, joining the rush, seeing the ice well and defending hard. He can't wait to bring all of that to the ice starting Thursday in the season opener against Buffalo.
"I'm excited to get this season going," Schultz said. "I feel good coming into camp. Just got to continue that into the regular season. Obviously, we've got a long ways to go here as a team and it'll be a good couple of practices for us to get ready for Thursday."