Penguins' Brian Dumoulin leaves no doubt as to top-pair credentials
There's no doubt what Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin will remember most about the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs.
It's the shot he took from the slot that caromed off the pads of goalie Braden Holtby on a fateful May night in Washington.
There's just as little doubt about what the playoffs — and the regular season that preceded them — will do for Dumoulin's reputation in the hockey world.
It was the year he became known as a bona fide top-pair defenseman.
After his previous two seasons ended with Stanley Cup celebrations that he took part in enthusiastically, the one that got away still was haunting Dumoulin a few days after the Capitals finished off their six-game, second-round victory this year.
There were less than five minutes left in Game 5. The score was tied 3-3. The series was tied 2-2. Dumoulin flashed to the slot, took a pass from Riley Sheahan and fired toward Holtby's five-hole. The veteran goaltender slammed the door shut, and two passes later, Jakub Vrana was scoring the winning goal at the other end of the ice.
With the benefit of a little hindsight, Dumoulin wasn't beating himself up over the play, cursing his stick, his shot accuracy or his luck. He definitely still was playing the what-if game, however.
“When you lose, you look back and say, ‘What if a bounce went this way? What if we won Game 5? It'd be a different story,' ” Dumoulin said. “It's crazy to think like that, and that's where our game is at. The parity is so high that it's tough to win year after year after year.”
It's also hard for a young defenseman to improve year after year after year, but that's what the 26-year-old Dumoulin has done.
Since his first full season in the league, Dumoulin has seen his ice time and his quality of competition slowly tick upward. He has become coach Mike Sullivan's No. 1 shutdown option on the blue line.
This season, he added a little offensive production to his game. His 19 points were a career high. After netting just two goals in his first 163 games with the Penguins, he scored five this season.
Add it all up, and it's probably safe to say he's the team's most effective two-way defenseman.
“Dumo, he's a real valuable player for us,” Sullivan said. “He's a very important player for us. We rely on him in so many situations. He plays against the other team's top players. He's a very good defending defensemen. He uses his mobility extremely well. He has a good stick.
“When he has the ability to help us with the offense, it's just a big bonus for us. There's an area of his game where we think he's capable there as well. He's another guy on our roster that's still a young guy. He has so much upside in his overall two-way game.”
As Dumoulin's on-ice game has grown, so has his presence in the locker room. When the team met one last time for exit interviews and physicals earlier this week, he spoke like a veteran leader.
He vehemently defended defense partner Kris Letang in the face of criticism for his play in the Washington series. He complimented the performances of Jamie Oleksiak and Chad Ruhwedel, newcomers to the defense corps, and predicted big things in their futures.
Most strikingly, he spoke about the lessons learned during a season that proved trying at times.
“We had a point in our season where we had to come together, when we were looking outside the playoffs. We came together, and we played some good hockey,” Dumoulin said. “Obviously you want to try to do that throughout the whole season, and that's something we can try to figure out next year. Looking back at it, those bumps definitely made us stronger.”