PITTSBURGH -- You wonder how fine the line is between a career being over and having one more shot at glory.
Mark Eaton doesn’t need to wonder. He knows that line is razor thin.
He also knows how it feels to be on the right side of that line.
The veteran defenseman, without a contract before and immediately after the lockout, wondered just a few months ago whether the game had passed him by.
"There was definitely some doubt when you go through the whole offseason having not really signed anywhere or had any interest from anywhere. It makes you think things might be over,” the Wilmington, Del., native said Thursday.
But the hockey gods had other plans.
After joining the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre on a tryout basis after the lockout, Eaton, who will turn 36 next week, played in just six AHL games before getting the call to join the club with which he won a Stanley Cup in 2009.
On Wednesday night, Eaton played 19 minutes, led all players with eight blocked shots and chipped in with an assist, his first point of 2013, as the Penguins beat the New York Islanders 5-0 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Stepping onto the ice for Game 1 was a moment that will stick with him.
"It had been two or three years since I’ve been in the playoffs, so you always know and you remember the playoffs being the best and the most fun time of year," he said. "But to get back out there last night, skate out there in the beginning, the towels waving, the crowd going nuts, it sends the chills down your body and really gets you amped up and gets you back into playoff mode real quickly."
Assistant coach Todd Reirden, who handles the defense for the Penguins, admits that he has been surprised by Eaton’s renaissance.
"We didn’t expect it to go as well as it has," Reirden told ESPN.com.
That Eaton was familiar with the Penguins’ systems was a definite factor in his return, first to Wilkes-Barre and then to the big club. But so was the fact he was an important part of the Pens’ Cup run in 2009, when he scored four goals.
The Pens wanted a player who had won at the highest level, who had played in Game 7s and was comfortable playing in pressure situations, Reirden said.
"And we didn’t need to look much further than Mark Eaton," the coach said.
Although Eaton does not possess blazing speed, he has a good knack for not getting into trouble and is a very efficient player, Reirden said.
In other words, he is a piece to a puzzle the Penguins are hopeful will once again reveal a Stanley Cup when it’s completed.
Former Penguins defenseman Phil Bourque, a longtime analyst for the team, has likewise been surprised by Eaton’s return to form. Bourque said he saw Eaton in the past couple of seasons, when Eaton was playing with the Islanders, and wasn’t impressed.
"I actually am surprised," Bourque said. "I thought he was done."
"There’s a laundry list of guys that never get that second chance" to prolong their careers, Bourque said. The fact Eaton has taken his name off that list and returned is "pretty cool."
Certainly, Eaton understands that his return to Pittsburgh and the chance at a second Stanley Cup ring is something to be cherished.
"No question. The path that I’ve taken this year was windy, but to end up here was the ultimate goal all along," Eaton said. "To actually be here now and in the playoffs and enjoying it is a little more gratifying."