John Curry’s first NHL action was in a 5-3 come-from-behind victory for Pittsburgh.Aimee Dilger File Photo/For The Times Leader
Tim Wallace saw his first action in the NHL this season. Wallace played in seven games with Pittsburgh and registered an assistFred Adams File Photo/For The Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE TWP. – John Curry was in the third period of his first NHL start with the game tied 3-3 when the league’s leading goal scorer stood 10 feet away with the puck. Welcome to the NHL, kid.
Curry is one of several Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins who got their first taste of NHL action this season, joining Ben Lovejoy, Janne Pesonen, Tim Wallace, Paul Bissonnette and Dustin Jeffrey, who was just called up on Friday.
A player’s first NHL game is something he has always dreamed about and something he will always remember. But for a goaltender, the experience comes with a bit more pressure.
Although Curry made his first NHL start on Nov. 28 against the Buffalo Sabres, his first action came two days earlier when Pittsburgh head coach Michel Therrien pulled starting goaltender Dany Sabourin in the second period against the New York Islanders.
Curry entered the game with the Penguins down 3-0, and over the next three minutes the Islanders sent four shots his way and earned a power play. But Curry held his ground and stopped all 11 shots he faced in the game as the Penguins came back to win 5-3.
“It was a pretty intense experience,” Curry said while recalling his unexpected first NHL action. “I figured my first NHL experience was likely to happen like that. But in a good way I didn’t have to sit and think about it all day before the game.”
Wallace, who just returned from his first stint in the big show, almost had a first NHL shift reminiscent of the way Mario Lemieux began his career – by scoring on his first shift.
Three minutes into a game against the New Jersey Devils, Wallace took his first NHL shift and promptly ripped a wrist shot on net. Unfortunately, Devils goaltender Scott Clemmensen made the save but the experience gave Wallace some early confidence.
“I just wanted to go out, be physical and have a positive shift,” he said. “And I ended up almost scoring.”
Wallace played seven games with Pittsburgh and registered an assist. He said the experience was amazing albeit nerve-wracking.
“It was all surreal the whole time,” Wallace said. “One time halfway through a game I was sitting on the bench looking around and taking it all in – the fact I was playing with all these great players and fulfilling my dream.”
Wallace found his greatest success while skating on a line with Jordan Stall and Matt Cooke. Against the Atlanta Thrashers he and Stall assisted on a goal by Cooke and in his last game with Pittsburgh, against Tampa Bay on Dec. 23, he led the team with six hits.
Playing alongside Cooke – a veteran with a physical style similar to his – was a benefit for Wallace.
“Guys up there have been playing for a long time and they’re very smart hockey players,” Wallace said. “Cookie and myself talked about little things in the game and I definitely improved and learned from that.”
Although the talent level is greater in the NHL, Curry and Wallace said they didn’t have to make any major adjustments when they got into a game. Both players said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaches Dan Bylsma and Todd Reirden prepared them for the NHL style, as did putting time in at the AHL level.
“The players in the NHL are faster and they shoot with more accuracy, but the situations in every game are the same,” Curry said. “You feel comfortable when you go out there, and that’s the benefit of having the AHL.”
“There wasn’t much of an adjustment because here in Wilkes-Barre they develop and prepare you to play in the NHL,” Wallace added. “You just have to stay consistent and focused and never get complacent.”
Even if you do lead your team to a come-from-behind victory like Curry did in his first NHL game.
For his efforts that night, Curry’s picture was placed alongside Evgeni Malkin’s as the “Game Winners” on Pittsburgh’s Web site.
“That’s pretty cool,” Curry said. “It’s one of those things you don’t realize until you take a step back. When you’re up there you are so focused on what’s going on that you don’t think about the fact that you’ve been dreaming about the NHL your whole life.”
And dreaming about making big saves, like Curry did against Buffalo Sabres forward Thomas Vanek, with the game tied 3-3.
With the puck bouncing alongside the net, Curry watched as it rolled across to Vanek, who promptly shot it from in close.
Curry made the initial save with his glove, but the puck squirted free and landed between his skates on the goalline.
“They reviewed it and ruled that I made the save,” Curry said. “It was a pretty neat situation and a moment I’ll always remember.”