PITTSBURGH -- It's been 14 years since Ron Hainsey last enjoyed an extended playoff run. A first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2000, the defenseman was developing with the club's American Hockey League affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs, when they advanced all the way to the 2003 Calder Cup Final before losing to the Houston Aeros in seven games.
It was a sad ending but ultimately a gratifying experience for Hainsey, who endured a combined 28-38-6 record over two seasons at UMass-Lowell and never sniffed the postseason. But as a first-round pick (13th overall) who was emerging on a competitive AHL team, there was little doubt he would get another shot at a pro hockey title. An NHL promotion was on the horizon -- and with it the seemingly inevitable thrill of competing in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
More than a decade after that Calder Cup run -- and after playing 907 regular-season games without a postseason appearance, which was the longest streak in the NHL -- Hainsey played in his first Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.
"It was fun. The puck was bouncing, and I think that made maybe the first-period jitters a little worse," Hainsey said after the Penguins' 5-3 win against the Nashville Predators in Game 1. "You're amped up and excited to play. It was a great atmosphere, and getting the lead was obviously good."
The 36-year-old Hainsey wasn't sure what to expect in his first appearance on hockey's biggest stage. He certainly didn't anticipate seeing a 3-0 lead vanish during a 37-minute span in which Pittsburgh failed to fire a shot on goal, only to eke out a victory and grab a 1-0 series lead against the Predators, who outshot Pittsburgh 26-12. All of this madness occurred while Hainsey admittedly dealt with the requisite jitters that naturally come when a player -- especially one who has suffered through one losing season after another -- finally gets his title shot.
"After the first period, you've got some time to regroup and get back in the flow of it," Hainsey said. "We really just didn't spend enough time on their half of the red line after we got the lead."
Hainsey has been a welcome addition on a Penguins blue line that has been wracked by injuries since he was acquired in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 23. And if the veteran had any jitters before the game he's been waiting to play in all his life, his teammates certainly didn't notice.
"Ronnie's pretty laid-back and a good pro," said Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz. "He's been huge for us since we got him. It's cool to see him here."
Before coming to Pittsburgh, Hainsey had played in 891 regular-season games with the Canadiens, Columbus Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets and Hurricanes without experiencing a single second of playoff intensity. Almost overnight he was asked to add an element that the Penguins desperately needed -- especially on Monday night against the Predators: a calming veteran presence capable of maintaining composure in the eye of an unyielding storm.
"He's been around for so long. He has that veteran presence we need in the locker room," teammate Olli Maatta said on Sunday. "He kind of calms [us] down when the stakes get high."
By the time Hainsey joined the Penguins, the team was all but assured a playoff berth. As the defending Cup champions, they'd surely be considered among the favorites to win it this season. All of that occurred to Hainsey as he suddenly faced the prospect of playing hockey in June.
"I certainly thought this was a team that had a chance to do this," Hainsey said on Sunday.
But given that the playoff format this season was divided along divisional lines, Hainsey knew the task wouldn't be easy. During his time in Carolina, the Hurricanes were bottom-feeders in arguably the NHL's most competitive division. So if anyone knew how challenging it would be to emerge from the Metropolitan Division, it was Hainsey. That was particularly true in a season in which the Washington Capitals led the league with 118 points and the Blue Jackets enjoyed their first 50-win season.
Pittsburgh defeated Columbus and then Washington before dispatching the Ottawa Senators in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. For Hainsey's teammates, those wins were made sweeter by the knowledge that his playoff adventure would continue.
"We all know it's his first time in the playoffs. I was telling him the other day, 'You're undefeated, you've never lost a series,'" defenseman Trevor Daley said Sunday. "That's a pretty good record so far. He's doing well."
After posting a plus-2 in just less than 20 minutes of ice time in his Cup finals debut, Hainsey now has five points in the playoffs while averaging 21:08 per game, second on the team behind Brian Dumoulin. More than anything, he's added his signature stability to a team looking to make history.
If the Penguins go on to win three more games and hoist the Stanley Cup again, they would become the first team to win consecutive championships during the salary-cap era. Winning the Cup with a respected veteran whose trip to the finals has been a long time coming would make it only more special.
"It's crazy that this is the first time he's been in the playoffs in his 14-year career," Dumoulin said Sunday. "He's the type of guy who is not taking this for granted at all. He's loving every second of it. To be able to potentially get that guy a Stanley Cup would be awesome."
That's a sentiment Hainsey echoes, using the exact same word to describe his first postseason: "Awesome."