PITTSBURGH – Call it rookie pride.
“Oh yeah. There’s a ton of it in here,” said Bryan Rust of the Pittsburgh Penguins, standing in the team's dressing room after Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night.
For years, the Penguins struggled with finding the right supporting cast for its collection of star players. They would look outside the organization, and the fits weren’t always right.
So, then, it’s no coincidence that the Penguins are two wins away from the Cup on the strength of their supporting cast. And it’s no surprise, at least for captain Sidney Crosby, that the supporting cast that’s excelling is made of homegrown Penguin rookies.
“Not at this point, I’m not. With they way they played,” he said, after their Game 2 overtime win against the San Jose Sharks. “They’re all in different kinds of situations, but they’ve all been great. And they’re having fun with it, but with a confidence in their abilities, showing what they can do.”
Crosby helped set up one of those rookies, Conor Sheary, 23, for the game-winner. He has four goals in the playoffs, including ones in each of the Final’s games, and five assists in 19 games.
Rust, a 24-year-old rookie, has six goals and three assists in 19 games, including four goals in his last four games. Tom Kuhnhackl has contributed solid minutes on the fourth line.
And then there’s the most significant of the rookies. The one who took over in goal during the first round to save the Penguins against the New York Rangers, outplaying Henrik Lundqvist. The one that followed that performance by outplaying potential Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby. The one who battled to keep his gig in the previous round, and that now stands two wins away from the Stanley Cup after back-to-back solid performances against the Sharks.
Rookie pride, right Matt Murray?
“I guess so,” said the 22-year-old. “But we try not to look at ourselves as rookies. You know, we think we belong here.”
Transitioning from the minor leagues to a championship contender isn’t always easy, but the Penguins rookies were ushered into a unique opportunity when coach Mike Sullivan was elevated from Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh after Mike Johnston was fired in December. There were no secrets, no mysteries: He knew them, they knew him and both had a preexisting comfort level with the other.
"The fact that I had the opportunity to coach these guys in Wilkes-Barre, see what they were able to accomplish in the 20-something games that I was down there with them, certainly gave me a clearer indication of how I could utilize them and put them in positions to be successful. So when they did get the opportunity to play in the NHL, I could cast them in the right roles with the right line combinations,” said Sullivan.
“I didn't have to go through the learning process because I watched these guys play for 20-something games. I was able to see what they were able to accomplish at the American League level. I think that experience certainly helped me with utilizing those guys in the most optimum way.”
Rust was soon slotted with Evgeni Malkin. Sheary was given a role on Sidney Crosby’s line. And that’s been another key to the rookies’ success: The acceptance and mentorship from the veteran core.
“Sid and some of our older guys, when they spend time with these guys, they've really taken the young players under their wing. They've done a tremendous job just as far as being mentors for them, making them feel comfortable,” said Sullivan.
For Sheary, that meant getting over what Sullivan called “the ‘wow’ factor” in playing alongside Sidney Crosby – being a little star-struck, deferring too much to that star on the ice.
“That’s normal for anybody. They get called up, they want to get the puck to their center. We’ve talked. Tried to get [to understand] the way we know each other play,” said Crosby.
Murray, too, has earned the respect of his teammates, after having supplanted popular starter Marc-Andre Fleury, as he recovered from injury and then struggled in his only start last round.
Murray is 13-4-1 with a .926 save percentage.
“He's provided so much evidence for us throughout the course of this postseason that he can play and compete in a high-stakes environment,” said Sullivan. “We think Matt gives us the timely saves we need to give the team a chance to win. He's done that for us throughout the course of the postseason. He's a big reason why I think this team is still playing to this point.”
As are all the first-year players that have helped push the Penguins to within two victories of the Stanley Cup.
They’re learning on the fly, learning how to win, and improving each round.
"There's a learning process that players go through. They realize how hard it is, that they've got to bring the same effort and the same performance and the same execution night after night after night,” said Sullivan. “That, I think, is what separates NHL players from the rest of the world, is their ability to continue to bring a consistency of play that comes to be the expectation.”
The Penguins expect nothing less from their rookies. And the rookies take pride in meeting those expectations.
"It brings a huge smile to my face when I see those guys doing well," said Rust.
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