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Schultz steps in and stars for Pens

by Nicole Jelinek @Penguins / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pens defenseman Justin Schultz made his presence felt in his return to the lineup in Thursday's 3-2 double overtime win over Ottawa in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final at PPG Paints Arena.

After missing the last four games with an upper-body injury, Schultz stepped right into a do-or-die situation and recorded two points (1G-1A). He scored a crucial power-play goal in the third period and assisted on Chris Kunitz's game-winner en route to being named Second Star of the night.

"I think Justin is an important part of our blue line," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "He makes a great play in the power play. It's a difference in the game. So I think that play, in and of itself, is an indication of the impact he has on our team and our ability to win games. But it doesn't just stop there on the power play. He's a good puck mover. He's a mobile guy. He gets back to pucks. He sees the ice well. He can go tape to tape when the opportunities are there. So he helps our transition game."

Schultz's impact was felt full force at the 11:44 mark of the third period when the Pens had their first opportunity of the entire game to use their power play.

Schultz resumed his spot as the quarterback of the first unit, and took a slapshot that beat Senators netminder Craig Anderson thanks in large part to a screeen by Chris Kunitz.

"It was nice," Schultz said. "We only had one. It was important to capitalize and at least get some momentum. We were lucky enough to get a goal there."

The goal is arguably the biggest of Schultz's career to this point, coming on a night that involved a much heavier and intense workload then he may have expected for a first game back coming off an injury.  

"I'm extremely happy to get the win, but really tired," Schultz admitted with a laugh after the game. "(My legs) feel all right right now. Tomorrow morning may be a different story. It just feels really good to get that win and go to the Stanley Cup Final again."

Schultz was traded to Pittsburgh in February of 2016 for the stretch run and had eight points in 18 regular-season games. He then played in 15 playoff games, including all six in the Stanley Cup Final against San Jose, but was a healthy scratch at times leading up to that..

But this year, in the absence of star defenseman Kris Letang, Schultz has been outstanding - enjoying his best NHL regular season and carrying that over into the postseason on a blue line that's dealt with so many injuries.

That's made this playoff run extra special for him and something that has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.

"He is a special hockey player," Schultz's D partner Ian Cole said. "If he isn't playing 100 perent and plays a game like that, I can't wait to see him at 100 percent - hopefully in a couple of days because he was special tonight. What he does with the puck is, in my mind, second to none. He has great offensive talent and is so solid defensively as well. I can't say enough great things about him."

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