Brian Dumoulin was in the midst of playing some of the best hockey of his career last season, his third with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League. Dumoulin led the team’s defense in scoring with 33 points and ranked fourth in the AHL with a plus-25 rating.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the Penguins had lost three of their top defensemen to injury as Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff were sidelined with concussions and Olli Maatta was out for the season with a shoulder injury.
So Dumoulin got the call. But it wasn’t just for a few regular-season games to reward his outstanding play in the AHL – it was a call that led the young defensemen to the Stanley Cup playoffs, where he made his debut in Game 1 of the First Round against the New York Rangers.
“I was just thrown in there,” said Dumoulin, who had played just 14 career NHL games before getting the call-up. “I didn’t really have time to think about it. The coaches just told me to go out there and play hockey.”
Dumoulin, then 23, didn’t just go out and play hockey. He played the best hockey he could – the kind of hockey he was playing down in Wilkes-Barre. Playing an average of 14:06 minutes a night in the Penguins’ five postseason contests, Dumoulin was the only defensemen to finish with a positive plus-minus.
“I felt like the one thing that helped me play well in the playoffs was just going out there, not thinking and just having fun,” Dumoulin said. “I think that’s the kind of attitude I’ve tried to take this year also.”
It’s certainly working.
After signing a two-year, one-way deal during the offseason, Dumoulin reported to Pittsburgh and has since become arguably the Pens’ most consistent defender through the first 14 games of the season.
He has been on the ice for only two goals against, the least of all Penguins defenseman, and has been playing with a lot of confidence.
“Dumoulin has played great defensively,” head coach Mike Johnston said. “He’s a hard guy to beat 1-on-1. He has grade-A position all of the time.”
The key to his success? The Biddeford, Maine native points to the stall of his defensive partner.
“Ben Lovejoy is a really great guy to play with,” Dumoulin said. “He keeps it simple and after playing with him for the past few games, I know what he’s going to do. He’s going to make that simple play and that helps me as a defenseman, knowing that I don’t have to worry about his mistakes because he really doesn’t make any.”
Lovejoy shared the sentiment.
“I think we’ve gotten very comfortable with one another,” Lovejoy said. “We both are trying to keep it simple and we know what our role is right now. We know we’re playing against some of the best players in the league who can make you look stupid.
“Neither of us have any sort of cheat in our game for offense. We’re both trying to get up the ice to be a second wave.”
On the team’s recent Western Canada road trip, a white jersey with the No. 8 could be seen joining the rush, battling down low and looking to score more often than not. They’re a comfortable pair for sure, but to literally leave your partner behind you?
“I think a lot of times I know he’s going right up to that winger so I don’t have to worry about him coming with me,” Dumoulin said. “I can get up ice and try and create something on the rush.”
“It’s one of the things he’s done incredibly well,” Lovejoy said. “It’s such a special attribute for a young defenseman. He’s not cheating. Every time he takes advantage of getting up in the play it’s at the proper time when he doesn’t have to cheat for pucks.”
Goaltender Jeff Zatkoff trusted Dumoulin to play in front of him long before his NHL debut. They’ve spent two seasons in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton together and Zatkoff is hardly shocked by the level at which his teammate is playing through 14 games.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Zatkoff while shaking his head in astonishment. “He did the same exact thing in Wilkes-Barre that he’s doing here now. He was one our best defenseman down there and he’s been awesome up here.”
He doesn’t see any sign of him stopping either.
“I think it’s evident in his game,” Zatkoff said. “He stepped right up and hasn’t missed a beat.”