Nikita Kucherov's hands are so soft that, when I was covering the Lightning's morning skate in Tampa six weeks ago, a sharp pass struck his blade just on the other side of the glass and -- I swear -- it barely made a sound.
When I asked Kucherov afterward about that, he laughed and answered, "You must be fast with puck, always."
Few are faster in that regard, from what I've witnessed, than the NHL's leading goal-scorer with 17.
So when this puck popped off the end boards and blissfully toward Kucherov in the second period of the Penguins' 5-2 victory Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena, I might as well have started counting the milliseconds until it would be buried in the back of Tristan Jarry's net:
That's impressive in isolation, but it's that much more when put into the context that Jarry first reacted to the wide shot from the left point by spilling maybe a little farther than he'd have liked beyond the right lip. Which meant that he not only had to get across, not only had to consume as much of the 24 square feet as he could, but also had to face ... you know.
A horizontal Jarry vs. a hurrying Kucherov.
And don't think for a second he didn't enjoy it, even within an evening in which he recorded his first NHL victory, his first NHL point with an assist, 7 of his 33 saves against the Lightning's machinelike power play and just a generally good jolt he seemed to bring to a group that really needed it:
Phil Kessel put up four points, Sidney Crosby two goals, and Bryan Rust's short-handed breakaway beauty built the barrage, but all of that came after Tampa Bay whipped 13 of the game's first 17 shots at Jarry. As Jon Cooper, the Lightning's coach, observed, "I don't know what their coach said, but I thought we were the better team in the first period."
His team trailed, 3-0, at the intermission, but the point stands. Except that Jarry's part of the Penguins now, too, and he outshone everyone on the rink.
Particularly with this toe stop on Steven Stamkos, the NHL's leading overall scorer, at the period's midpoint with the game still scoreless, one that brought chants of 'Jar-ry! Jar-ry!' from the crowd:
"Dumo's coming down on his back, so he's coming with speed," Jarry recalled of Stamkos being chased by Brian Dumoulin. "Dumo was trying to take away one side, and I was trying to take away another, so I was just trying to make myself as big as possible."
Jarry's being overly generous about Dumoulin's contribution. He was too far back to tilt Stamkos one way or the other.
But he was dead-on about the making himself big part. Because, although Jarry's only 6-2 -- not great size for a modern NHL goaltender -- he's shown a strength all through his rise in the minors, including with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL before being promoted two weeks ago -- for using every bit of that body as needed.
Watch the Kucherov save again, but this time as captured through the still lens of our photographer Matt Sunday at ice level:
That's a total of just 14 frames, but Sunday's intent is to illustrate both how far Jarry had to come across and how remarkably poised his form was by the time Kucherov released. Look at the photo atop this column for Jarry's coup de grace.
Mike Buckley, the Penguins' goaltending coach who spent all of last season in Wilkes-Barre with Jarry, praised him above-and-beyond for that facet in an interview two weeks ago with our Matt Gajtka: “His play-reading is exceptional. He’s a very smart goalie. He’s very calm and poised in the net.”
Buckley also cited Jarry's use of the stick, which he used to set up -- with an honest-to-Hextall forward flick of his stick -- Rust's breakaway. Not to mention how he twice cleared the puck out of trouble during the same Tampa Bay power play, once using just his blocker hand:
[caption id="attachment_486918" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Tristan Jarry sticks away a puck in the second period. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
"It's a part of my game," Jarry said. "I wasn't honestly thinking about an assist, but that's nice."
Mike Sullivan surely would have started Jarry on this night even if the Penguins hadn't played the previous day in Boston. Or even if they hadn't lost, 4-3, on a late breakaway goal by David Pastrnak that beat Matt Murray to his much-maligned glove side. So it's not like he took some great coaching gamble.
That said, Sullivan had also bemoaned the fact that the Penguins, through this latest annoying three-game losing streak, hadn't been getting that big, timely save. And he made that clear in Boston by being sure to include Murray in his broader criticism of the team.
Well, gamble or not, Jarry paid off. And Sullivan sounded plenty pleased about it when I brought up Jarry's overall performance, but particularly his first period.
"I thought he had a great night, and especially early on, like you said," Sullivan came back. "They had a shot advantage in the first period. He made some timely saves for us. He was really solid all night long for us."
The outcome plainly meant all the more to the 22-year-old British Columbia kid who was the Penguins' top pick (second round) in the 2013 draft, but faced lots of doubt along the path to Pittsburgh. This was his third start since arriving, and all three have been sound. But only one can bring the first W, as well as the first puck that was snapped up on the ice by Patric Hornqvist as a gift.
"It's very exciting," Jarry said. "It's something that you can only dream of. It's something you think of as a kid. It's something you might think you'll never achieve. But it's something that came true tonight."
• No one's been tougher on himself for weeks now than Rust, with just two goals through his first 24 games and zero at even-strength.
The short-handed breakaway wasn't even-strength, obviously ...
... but he was hardly complaining afterward.
"It felt good," Rust said. "I was just trying to beat their guy up the ice, and then I was just trying to see what was open."
Their guy was Tyler Johnson, a terrific skater in his own right, but Rust wasn't going to be caught, not after neatly backhand-chipping Jarry's swat past Tampa Bay's Mikhail Sergachev to set sail, certainly not after all his frustrations of late.
• Fact is, though, Rust was badly overdue, like so many of his mates. The Penguins as a whole rank third in the NHL at 35 shots per game but 23rd in goals at 2.76. That water tends to find its level before long, as it's rooted in either lousy luck or a lack of skill, and we've seen too much from this group the past couple of years to presume the latter.
On that note, Sidney Crosby scored twice and set up another for a season-high three points. And more promising than the total is that his process has been building for a few days now. He's been looking more loose, sharpening his distribution, drawing penalties, heck, even shooting once in a while:
Repeat as needed: The team goes as the captain goes.
• I don't know what to make of Ian Cole being scratched in back-to-back games. I just don't. I'll never claim to have all the answers, and I completely blanked out at Sullivan's press conference in forgetting to ask him. No one else did, either, but I'm not responsible for anyone but me. The team isn't practicing Sunday -- Sullivan canceled it after this game -- so it'll have to wait until Monday.
• It was a good win against the NHL's best team. Couldn't possibly end this on a bummer note.
• Oh, and this below. This also was wonderful:
Huge standing ovation here at PPG Paints Arena for Chris Kunitz in his return to Pittsburgh. Thank you for everything, Kuni. pic.twitter.com/u3Pd0Ijm1g
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) November 26, 2017
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
[caption id="attachment_486862" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Penguins vs. Lightning, PPG Paints Arena, Nov. 25, 2017 - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
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