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Schuttenhelm on Hockey: Rowney making impact for Penguins

The NHL Playoffs started off with promise for UND hockey fans.

Ten former North Dakota players laced 'em up with hopes that their name might be engraved on Lord Stanley's Cup. But things got ugly quickly.

The Chicago Blackhawks, poised to make a long playoff run in many people's minds, were knocked out in round 1 by Nashville. There went Jonathan Toews and Nick Schmaltz. Ditto the Minnesota Wild and Zach Parise.

The second round took out T.J. Oshie and the Washington Capitals. Out west, Drake Caggiula, a huge contributor to UND's 2016 national championship team, was scoring some big goals playing alongside phenom Connor McDavid on the Edmonton Oiler's number 1 line. Would Caggiula pull off the unlikely feat … an NCAA national championship and a Stanley Cup in consecutive years? Nope. The Oilers fell to Anaheim in seven.

That left an unlikely forward as the lone torch carrier for the North Dakota hockey program heading into the conference finals. Carter Rowney, wearing No. 37 for the Pittsburgh Penguins, a four-year performer at UND, undrafted, unheralded, essentially a role player, always a hard-worker.

Rowney spent a few years bouncing around between the ECHL Wheeling Nailers and AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after leaving Grand Forks in 2013. After a midseason call-up, he played 27 regular season games for Pittsburgh. Rowney was in the lineup for most of the Pens first-round series with Columbus, but sat for much of the second round with Washington.

With the Penguins reeling after losing games 5 and 6 to the Caps, Rowney was reinserted in the lineup for game 7. Playing effectively on the Pens’ penalty kill unit and on the fourth line alongside former St. Cloud Stater Matt Cullen of Moorhead and U-Mass Lowell product Scott Wilson, Rowney was a big factor in Pittsburgh's 2-0 win.

The Alberta native was back in the lineup for all of the Eastern Conference final games versus Ottawa, a seven-game series in which Pittsburgh prevailed. Coach Mike Sullivan obviously appreciated Rowney's tenacity, physical play, and exceptional penalty killing, and No. 37's ice time progressively increased as the series wore on. A bit of offense (3 assists in Pittsburgh's game 5 7-0 rout) is icing on the cake.

So here we go, the Stanley Cup Finals are underway. It's the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins versus the 16th and final team to make the NHL playoffs, the Nashville Predators, with the Penguins holding a 1-0 lead after Monday's 5-3 game one victory.

What can we expect to see the rest of the way? The underdog Preds are a hard-working lunch- pail kind of team with a pair of stars on the back line, P.K. Subban and Roman Josi. Goaltender Pekka Rinne is playing about as well as a goalie can play, and has to be considered the favorite to win the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP should the Predators go on to win the Cup. The Predators, true to form, have outworked more talented teams all the way through these playoffs.

The Penguins do not lack star power, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and more. Pittsburgh's roster features multiple players who've won multiple Stanley Cups and a pair of goalies who've started for Stanley Cup winning teams.

And Carter Rowney. A man who's made himself into an everyday NHL player by virtue of his willingness to put in the hard work, and the last remaining former UNDer with a chance to put the engraver to work on the most coveted trophy in all of sports.