Notice John Tavares in Game 1? We didn’t either.
New York’s 22-year-old star, who is a Hart Trophy (NHL MVP) contender for his role in leading the Islanders to their first playoff appearance since 2007 and who finished third in the league with 28 goals during the regular season, was held to zero shots in 17:03 minutes of ice time in his team’s 5-0 loss to the Penguins on Wednesday at CONSOL Energy Center. And for that, Brandon Sutter deserves a lot of the credit.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma sent Sutter over the boards to line up against his fellow center Tavares in matchup situations throughout the game, marking him in the defensive zone, forechecking him in the offensive zone, winning key faceoffs against him and helping contain him on the power play. And Sutter obviously excelled.
That’s something he has been doing all season, his first with the Penguins since being acquired from Carolina last summer.
“It’s kind of what he’s been doing since I’ve seen him play,” linemate Brenden Morrow attested. “He’s great on faceoffs. You use him in any situation. He kills penalties and he’s always reliable above pucks and strong defensively, and it paid off last night.”
We talk so much about all of the talent this team has with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Kris Letang, etc. But as we saw during Pittsburgh’s Cup run in 2009, one player the Penguins relied on heavily in the postseason was two-way center Jordan Staal to handle opposing team’s top forwards and be a key member of the penalty killing unit. And with Staal now in Carolina, the Penguins will be counting on Sutter and linemates Morrow and Matt Cooke to fill that shutdown role – and chip in offense as well.
“I’m used to playing it,” Sutter said. “I’ve been playing it for a few years now and it’s a role I like. And I think when you play with linemates like Brenden Morrow or Matt Cooke, you get great offense and get a great forecheck out of it and really find a good two-way game. So, I think in the last few games, we’re happy with how we’ve been playing and obviously last night was good and we have a lot work left here. We still have a few left to win this series and they have some good players and quick D too.”
Providing secondary scoring is something Sutter said he wanted to do in his first interview with the media as a Penguin, and he did. He finished with five game-winning goals and had two performances that particularly stood out – his two-goal game in a 3:24 span of the third period in a come-from-behind win over Boston on March 24, and the OT winner March 2 at Montreal. That clutch goal-scoring ability paired with his defensive excellence is part of what makes him such an intriguing factor of this team in the postseason.
It’s interesting to see how Sutter will continue to perform in his first postseason, as Wednesday was his NHL playoff debut. Playing hockey at this time of year is something he’s been anticipating for a long time, but going into it, his calm, composed demeanor didn’t betray the excitement he felt for the game he’d been waiting five seasons for.
“It’s something I’ve been waiting for for a while,” Sutter said. “I think I just kind of wanted to treat it like another game. I didn’t want to get too worked up over it. I just tried to play my game and play well and it went good. I’m happy with the way it went and once I got a few shifts in, you kind of relax and just worry about your game.”
But it’s not fair to compare Sutter to Staal or anyone else for that matter. Though he deals with comparisons all the time, especially being from one of the NHL’s most legendary families (he’s one of 11 Sutters who were drafted into the NHL), Brandon is his own player and person. And he’s ready to create his own legacy with this Penguins team.
“I just kind of go and play,” he said. “I don’t think it really matters who you are or what your name is at this level. If you’re here, you know how to play and you’re a player. So it doesn’t matter who you are. I try just to worry about what I’m doing and not pay attention to what other people are saying.”