Penguins rookie Sundqvist makes NHL debut
TAMPA, Fla. — In the fall of 2014, a pair of European teenagers impressed enough to stick with the Penguins throughout training camp, only to fall off the roster when final cuts were made in early October.
One of those prospects, Kasperi Kapanen, was the lynchpin in the Phil Kessel trade last July.
The other, Oskar Sundqvist, made his NHL debut Friday night for the Penguins at Tampa Bay.
“When I got so far in training camp, I knew I could play at this level,” Sundqvist said. “Definitely last year was a good boost for me.”
Sundqvist, 21, was pressed into action when the Penguins learned Evgeni Malkin would be out for this weekend and Eric Fehr would miss about a month with lower-body injuries.
The 6-foot-3, 209-pound Sundqvist started this season as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's top checking center under coach Mike Sullivan, sometimes playing with Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust on his wings.
Those facts made his NHL debut — playing a checking role with Sullivan as his coach and Kuhnhackl and Rust as his wingers — a little more comfortable.
The biggest adjustment Sundqvist had to make was to the quality of competition.
“It's better players overall,” he said. “You have to be sure where you put the puck, so you don't put it on the wrong side. I think if you give away the puck, it's more likely they're going to score in this league than in the AHL.
“I have to be sure of what I'm doing out there.”
With Kuhnhackl, Sundqvist, Rust, Scott Wilson, Kevin Porter and Scott Wilson in the lineup, the entire cast of bottom-six forwards for the Penguins against the Lightning were recent Wilkes-Barre graduates.
“I think it's a great opportunity for them. I told them that,” Sullivan said. “Based on my experience being around the league, this is how young players break into the league and have an opportunity to establish themselves and make an imprint.
“I try to encourage our guys to embrace it. Don't just try to get through the game. Let's be difference makers.”
Doing the splits
Here is a good snapshot of the meat grinder the Penguins were walking into this weekend: Coming into Friday, the Lightning had won nine of their past 10 games. The only loss came to Florida, the Penguins' opponent Saturday night.
Therefore, it would be easy to think the Penguins would be happy to come out of this weekend with two points.
Captain Sidney Crosby agreed. Sort of.
“I'm sure that would be fair way to look at it from someone on the outside,” he said. “But when you're going out there and getting ready to compete, you're not willing to give points away just because it's a feel-good thing for a weekend. You want to win every game.”
The Penguins will host a major junior hockey showcase at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in the fall.
All nine teams from the United States Hockey League's Eastern Conference will play at the Cranberry rink from Sept. 15-18. It is a significant step up in scale from last September's inaugural USHL showcase at the venue, which saw four teams compete.