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Penguins' Schultz proves critics wrong in path to Stanley Cup title

| Monday, June 13, 2016, 12:51 a.m.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — At some point Sunday night, every Penguins player must have said winning the Stanley Cup was something they've dreamed about since childhood.

That childhood dream starts the journey, meaning it's the farthest away a player can be from the pinnacle. There might be only one exception — if you're buried on the bench in Edmonton in February.

Justin Schultz was there. The Penguins picked him up at the trade deadline, the Oilers so eager to get rid of him that they settled for a third-round pick and agreed to pay half of what remained on his $3.9 million salary.

In four months, Schultz has gone from boos and healthy scratches with the Western Conference's worst team to playing a key role in bringing the Cup back to Pittsburgh.

“This is insane,” Schultz said. “You dream about this as a kid, and now I was lifting the Stanley Cup up over my head. It's awesome.”

The words weren't kind four months ago: Bust. Reclamation project. Defenseman who doesn't play defense. Doesn't communicate on the ice.

Schultz, 25, was five years into an NHL career going nowhere.

The Penguins mentioned none of that.

“They told me to play my game, and my strengths are my offensive abilities, and they put me in positions where I could be successful,” Schultz said. “I have great teammates all around me, and it made it so easy.”

Said his defensive partner Ian Cole: “He's been unbelievable. People said, ‘Oh, he's a defensive liability out there.' Ever since he got here, he and I were playing together from Day 1, and we talked about just being so solid in our end, transitioning well and letting him use his skills offensively. Talk about someone that really locked it down defensively. He was fantastic for us, and his ability to get a whole new lease on life coming here, it's great to see.”

Schultz's ice time picked up after the injury to Trevor Daley in the Eastern Conference finals. His defense was solid enough to register a plus-2 in the playoffs. On Sunday night, he assisted on the game's first goal when he found Brian Dumoulin alone near the blue line, and Dumoulin beat Sharks goalie Martin Jones.

Schultz also made a great defensive play on the game's first good scoring chance. The Sharks' Matt Nieto stole the puck and had a breakaway down the left side. Penguins goalie Matt Murray stopped the shot, and Schultz went full-force in front of the crease to clear out a Sharks rebounder.

It's the kind of play the Oilers rarely saw but the Penguins have come to expect.

“My teammates gave me confidence. They're so good,” Schultz said. “I'm playing with a bunch of superstars. It's a dream come true.”

John Ryan is a freelance writer.

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