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Penguins take 2-0 lead as Finals head to Smashville

By Michael Russo • Updated Jun 2, 2017 at 11:00 AM

PITTSBURGH (TNS) – The Predators like to say the road to Nashville is through Milwaukee, referring to their American Hockey League affiliate where most their players have paid their dues at some point in the early parts of their career.

General Manager David Poile’s philosophy is not to rush players to the NHL.

While the Pittsburgh Penguins are built a different way, there’s no doubt a number of their key players were molded well in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., site of their AHL club.

Last year, players such as Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Matt Murray, Brian Dumoulin and Tom Kuhnhackl stepped right into the Big Pens’ lineup after the Baby Pens and made huge impacts. This year, it has been players such as Jake Guentzel, Carter Rowney, Chad Ruhwedel and Scott Wilson.

“Let’s be honest, we don’t win the Cup last year if not for these Wilkes-Barre players coming up and playing big roles,” veteran center Matt Cullen said. “It’s happening again this year.”

GM Jim Rutherford gives big credit to former players Mark Recchi and Bill Guerin, who are integral parts to the Penguins’ player development department.

“They’re champions,” Rutherford said. “They won as players. They bring that to our organization. Billy and Rechs have done a terrific job on the development side. You see the players that come in with the big club, and they immediately come in, and when the coaches take them over, they’re ready to play, they fit in. It’s such an important part of our game now. Like, the scouts have to do their job, they have to draft the right players. But if you don’t develop them right, they never get to where they need to get to. That’s what those guys did.”

Added Rust, “It starts with the connection from management all the way down to the young players. They’re always in touch with prospects, always trying to help you along the way. Even when you’re in college or juniors, you get calls and texts from the assistant GMs and player development guys on a regular basis checking in and giving tips.”

With No. 1 center Ryan Johansen out after series-ending thigh surgery, the Predators are trying to win a Stanley Cup without a star center. That’s not an easy task.

“Right now it’s by committee. That’s not by choice,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “We wish that all of our players were healthy. Ryan was doing an unbelievable job for us. We are who we are. We’ve got to find a way to do this. Colton Sissons has moved up in the lineup. I think he’s played terrific. That’s what has to happen when injuries occur.”

Kris Letang isn’t playing because of neck surgery, but the Penguins’ star defenseman has been aiding the coaching staff.

“He sits in on some of our coaches’ meetings that we have,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We value his input. He has great relationships with his teammates. I think he has the ability to have one-on-one conversations with or group conversations with defense pairs or the defensemen as a whole or the power play, whatever it may be.

“He can offer his insights or his perspective from seeing the game from a different vantage point than being on the ice.”

• Jacob Waddell, the Predators fan who threw a dead catfish onto the ice in Game 1, had charges of disorderly conduct, possessing instruments of crime and disrupting meetings and processions dropped on Wednesday. The 36-year-old told a Nashville radio station that he spent $350 for a pair of tickets to the game, filleted the catfish, drove over the fish with his truck to flatten it, vacuum sealed it and smuggled it into the arena in his pants.

• As the series changes locations, former Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is expected to be in Nashville to work as a Players’ Tribune on-camera correspondent. He worked the NHL All-Star Game for the website.

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