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Scrappy Penguins rookie center Rowney enjoys whirlwind journey

| Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, 8:25 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Carter Rowney fights for the puck with the Blue Jackets' Seth Jones in the third period Friday, Feb. 3, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Carter Rowney looks for a rebound as Blackhawks goaltender Mac Carruth makes a save in the third period Friday, Sept. 30, 2016 at Consol Energy Center.

When Kris Letang stepped out of the penalty box and took off on a breakaway Saturday night, his biggest fan was about 100 feet behind him.

Rookie Carter Rowney, playing in his third NHL game, was the player who provided Letang the puck. If Letang beat goalie Jake Allen, Rowney would have his first NHL point, an assist.

Letang flipped a puck over Allen's glove, and it tumbled to the back of the net, giving the Penguins a 2-0 lead in a game they went on to win, 4-1.

Rowney had a memory that will last a lifetime.

“Once I made that pass, I was pretty much just praying, ‘Come on. Come on,' ” Rowney said. “He's a pretty skilled player. I had confidence he was going to do the work.”

The milestone moment capped an eventful couple of weeks for Rowney. He first was called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Jan. 26 when Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist were questionable for a game in Boston because of injuries.

After taking warmups, Rowney watched the game from the TD Garden press box when Hornqvist was able to play. He was sent back to the AHL the next day. While he was disappointed his NHL debut had to wait, Rowney said the experience ended up being a valuable one.

“I was definitely a lot more nervous when I came up last time,” Rowney said. “I've been able to calm down a little bit and ease into it a little bit better.”

When Rowney left Boston on the morning of Jan. 27, he made a four-hour drive to Utica, N.Y., to play for the Baby Pens that night. After the game, he took a two-hour ride on the team bus to Binghamton, N.Y., for a game the next day.

He spent Jan. 28 in Wilkes-Barre before driving to Pittsburgh after being called back up the next day as the NHL All-Star break came to an end.

“It was a quick whirlwind,” Rowney said. “It was all right. I got to see a lot of states. Not complaining.”

In his three-game stint with the Penguins, Rowney has checked off a lot of boxes on the stat sheet. He has delivered eight hits, won more faceoffs than he's lost, played a couple of minutes on the penalty kill and turned in rock-solid shot-attempt ratios.

In other words, he's provided exactly what coach Mike Sullivan expected.

“I coached him last year for 20-something games. He had a real strong training camp. I knew he was a good player,” Sullivan said. “He doesn't surprise me at all. He's a good two-way centericeman.”

When Rowney was first promoted, it looked like his NHL time would be up as soon as Malkin, who has missed the past four games, returned to the lineup. Since then, Conor Sheary suffered an upper-body injury that will have him out four to six weeks, and Carl Hagelin took a hit to the head Saturday night that has his status in doubt.

Suddenly, Rowney has a chance to make a bigger splash.

“When you see opportunities like that, you have to go out there and do your job every shift and make the most of it,” Rowney said.

Undrafted and unheralded out of the University of North Dakota, Rowney split his first pro season between the Baby Pens and the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers. He didn't start playing a prominent offensive role in Wilkes-Barre until Sheary, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson and Tom Kuhnhackl were called up last season.

If he does make the most of his opportunity, it will be an inspirational tale.

“Anytime you see a guy like that have success, it's kind of eye-opening,” Rust said. “Usually when guys are higher draft picks and stuff like that, they're handed more of an opportunity. With him, I think he's earned everything he's gotten and it shows in how he carries himself and how he plays, how he comes to the rink every day. I'm happy he's here.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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