Penguins' rookies relish title run together
SAN JOSE, Calif. — For just a few minutes Sunday night at SAP Center, the Penguins rookies wanted to savor their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roots together.
Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust became regulars in the postseason lineup, in part, because they possessed remarkable maturity and composure for players with so little NHL experience. Coach Mike Sullivan trusted them whether the Penguins needed to protect leads, rally from deficits or seize momentum in tie games. And they rewarded him with performances that led more seasoned teammates to insist the roster no longer included “call-ups” or “Baby Pens.” Such titles were slights.
But as they waited for their turns to lift the Stanley Cup after the Penguins' 3-1 win over San Jose in Game 6, Murray, Sheary, Kuhnhackl and Rust reminisced and recognized the improbability of them standing there together.
“That was probably one of the better moments that I had,” said Murray, who tied the NHL record for playoff wins by a rookie goaltender (15). “Standing with those guys who were called up from Wilkes this year, guys that I've grown up with since I've been with this organization, and just saying to them, ‘Who would have thought we'd be in this moment a couple of years ago? Who would have thought we'd get here?'
“We did it together, and that made it a little bit sweeter. Those are friendships that will last a lifetime.”
Murray emerged as a Conn Smythe candidate. Sheary turned into Sidney Crosby's trusty left winger. Rust's ability to complement Evgeni Malkin brought stability to the Penguins' top-six forward corps. Kuhnhackl served as one-third of the line Sullivan leaned on for defensive-zone faceoffs.
But when they first joined the Penguins in late December and early January, the rookies just wondered how long they would stay on the roster.
“This still kind of feels like a joke, like somebody is pulling a prank or I'm dreaming,” Rust said. “I'm waiting for a catch. If you had told all of us that this would've happened at the beginning of the year, we wouldn't have believed you, not for a second.
“I was just trying to, when I got my call, to make an impact. I was expecting third or fourth line, minimal minutes. But Sully had so much faith in us, and we took it, and we ran with it.”
Neither Rust nor Murray allowed their confidence to slip much after they reached the NHL. They understood their strengths and weaknesses.
Sheary, undersized and undrafted out of college, and Kuhnhackl, a winger who transformed his game after the Penguins sent him down to the East Coast Hockey League, experienced more soul-searching during their transformations from minor leaguers to major Penguins contributors.
“You never think (of lifting the Cup) at the beginning of the year, for myself especially,” Sheary said.
Said Kuhnhackl: “I had a rough career, playing in the Coast and stuff. There's a lot of thoughts going through your mind. But I was talking to my dad, who accomplished so much in his career, and he said to never stop believing in yourself. I had to switch my game around and become a different player, but I guess it all paid off in the end.”
Kuhnhackl lifted the Cup, something his oft-noted father, Erich — known as the Germany's best player in the last century — never did.
“It's obviously a lot of pressure, but you want to make your dad proud,” Kuhnhackl said. “You want to be like your dad. Now I'm hoping that I made him proud a little bit.
“I guess my dad probably could've played over here back in the day, but he didn't want to. Back then it was probably more about money (in the German pro league) than winning the Cup and stuff. But now these days, this is a hockey player's dream to lift the trophy.”
Murray raised the chalice first among the four. He passed the Cup to Rust, who moved it along to Sheary, who found Kuhnhackl. They didn't plan it that way — Rust wondered aloud whether he should've given it to Kuhnhackl, his closest friend. But they certainly appreciated the symbolism of the sequence.
“We've been through everything together,” Rust said. “The ups and downs, the car ride to and from Wilkes-Barre. It was a fitting end.”
Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him ator via Twitter @BWest_Trib.