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Season of firsts Tom Kuhnhackl (42 appearances in regular season, 15 in playoffs) NHL debut: Jan. 9 at Montreal First goal: Feb. 20 vs. Tampa Bay First assist: Jan. 23 vs. Vancouver First playoff appearance: April 13 vs. New York Rangers Matt Murray (13 appearances...

Penguins rookies resist temptation to celebrate firsts amid playoff run

Season of firsts Tom Kuhnhackl (42 appearances in regular season, 15 in playoffs) NHL debut: Jan. 9 at Montreal First goal: Feb. 20 vs. Tampa Bay First assist: Jan. 23 vs. Vancouver First playoff appearance: April 13 vs. New York Rangers Matt Murray (13 appearances...

Penguins rookies resist temptation to celebrate firsts amid playoff run

Season of firsts

Tom Kuhnhackl

(42 appearances in regular season, 15 in playoffs)

NHL debut: Jan. 9 at Montreal

First goal: Feb. 20 vs. Tampa Bay

First assist: Jan. 23 vs. Vancouver

First playoff appearance: April 13 vs. New York Rangers

Matt Murray

(13 appearances in regular season, 13 in playoffs)

NHL debut: Dec. 19 vs. Carolina

First win: Dec. 21 vs. Columbus

First shutout: April 2 at New York Islanders

First playoff appearance: April 19 at New York Rangers

Conor Sheary

(44 appearances in regular season, 15 in playoffs)

NHL debut: Dec. 16 at Boston

First goal: Dec. 18 vs. Boston

First assist: Dec. 18 vs. Boston

First playoff appearance: April 13 vs. New York Rangers

Oskar Sundqvist (18 appearances in regular season, two in playoffs)

NHL debut: Feb. 5 at Tampa Bay

First goal: April 2 at New York Islanders

First assist: Feb. 24 at Boston

First playoff appearance: April 13 vs. New York Rangers

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Winger Conor Sheary stowed the stick he used to score his first NHL goal in his car because his hotel room in Pittsburgh has afforded him little space for memento storage.

Center Oskar Sundqvist left the pucks from his first NHL assist and goal at Consol Energy Center. He will relocate them to where he lives after he figures out where to reside after the season.

And goalie Matt Murray dumped his rookie-season collectibles onto his dad. He figured his parents would put more thought and effort into saving and showcasing the items.

None of the Penguins rookies knew just how special their first seasons would become when they made their NHL debuts in the middle of winter. Sheary, Sundqvist, Murray and Tom Kuhnhackl became counted upon as the Penguins evolved from a team outside the playoff picture to Stanley Cup frontrunners. They tried to stop and savor moments along the way, but opportunities to press pause amid a championship push continued to prove challenging.

“You definitely have your moments where you'd like to take a minute and sit back, take a deep breath and realize what's been going on, kind of enjoy the ride, I guess,” Murray said. “But at the same time, you're always looking forward and always trying to stay in the moment, I guess. ... We're trying to do a job here, so there's not really much else to think about.”

Few moments since the start of the playoffs became more surreal for Murray than the minutes that followed the Penguins' Game 3 win over Washington in the second round. The 21-year-old rookie turned away 47 shots in the 3-2 victory with Marc-Andre Fleury available on the bench for the first time in the postseason. And when he returned to the dressing room, he found his stall area overrun with reporters who wanted to hear what Kris Letang said about his open-ice hit on Marcus Johansson.

So Murray stood off to the side for a couple minutes and stared at the media horde, all too aware it planned to surround him next. The whole scene made him miss the simplicity of American Hockey League life a little, he said.

Afterward, Murray turned to his mother, who visited from Thunder Bay, Ontario, for Games 3 and 4, and tried to grasp the magnitude of what happened in the hours, days and weeks behind him as well as what remained ahead.

“It's my first time going through this experience, and it's been a ton of fun,” he said. “I definitely have taken some time, especially when I had family here, just to look back and just appreciate the moment.”

When his mom and dad, both of whom visited during the Washington series, headed back to Canada, Murray's keepsakes departed, too.

“I'll always have the memory, whether I have the puck or a stick or something or not,” Murray said. “The physical things don't really make a difference to me.”

Yet tangible reminders are perhaps the only ways to catalog the many events that occur in such whirlwind seasons. Rookies are fortunate to finish their debut season with a first-goal puck let alone items that commemorate personal involvement with a Stanley Cup chase.

Seemingly no one older and more experienced among the Penguins is eager to encourage sentimentality among the rookies.

“We're not going to look behind us, and we're certainly not going to get ahead of ourselves,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We've had success as a group because we've had such a short-term focus and just being concerned about that one game in front of us.”

The front office shares Sullivan's stance.

“You can always reflect when you're retired,” assistant general manager Bill Guerin said. “It sounds silly, but guys get so focused and locked in that there are things they won't remember because they're just very dialed in right now, and that's the way it's got to be.”

Guerin experienced a Stanley Cup run for the first time at about the same age as Sheary, 23, and Kuhnhackl, 24.

As a 23-year-old in his third NHL season, Guerin belonged to New Jersey in 1994 when the Devils lost in the conference finals. A season later, they won it all.

Guerin didn't participate in another deep playoff run until he and the Penguins won the Cup in 2009.

“I do remember that it's the same focus (regardless of age or experience),” Guerin said. “My wife always said when playoffs came around, it was like not even having me at home. And that's just the way it is. That's the understanding that you have. And that's what we kind of expect (of the rookies) right now.”

The search for balance between personal and professional life continues for Sheary, who got engaged in March and spent the limited free time with his fiancée during past couple months visiting some of their favorite restaurants in the South Side.

“We try to take in as much as we can,” Sheary said. “While I'm at the rink, I'll focus on hockey. But when you're away from it, you kind of have to take your mind off of it for a bit.”

Even for Sundqvist, a healthy scratch for all but two playoff games, the celebration of career goals achieved must wait until the postseason grind ends. While teammates who are regularly in the lineup skip optional skates, the 22-year-old Swede must show up for every training session. Less playing time does not afford him any more freedom to relax mentally or physically.

“I'm kind of a little bit afraid to get too comfortable,” Sundqvist said. “I don't want to risk getting too laid back. I've been trying to stay focused the whole time. Obviously after the season, I'll probably think through it, and it's going to be an awesome feeling to know that you've been here.”

And that's where the keepsakes come into play. They are physical testaments to what the memory might forget and older members of the team and organization might want to downplay.

“Hopefully we get to keep a jersey at the end of the year,” Kuhnhackl said. “That'd be really special for me.”

If that's out of the question, he at least will get a few pucks and sticks back to Germany this summer.

“They're all in my (hotel) room,” Kuhnhackl said. “And I can't wait to bring them home.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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