Sidney Crosby and the other Penguins stars can't do it all, so young stars have stepped up

Third-line winger Carter Rowney, who finally made the NHL this season at age 27, contributed three assists and was on the ice for four Penguins' goals in Game 5. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

PITTSBURGH -- As Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Bonino was driving to PPG Paints Arena for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday, his truck stopped working. The power steering went out. He safely pulled to the side and looked for help.

"Great teammate Phil Kessel came and picked me up," Bonino said after the Penguins' blowout win over the Senators. "I owe a lot to Phil tonight for being here. Great guy."

It was the perfect metaphor for the Penguins' struggles at the start the conference finals. In the beginning of this series, it was too often the stars -- Kessel, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- driving Pittsburgh's offense. Not until Game 4 did a Penguin other than one of those three score a goal against the Senators.

In Game 5, however, the Penguins were clicking on all cylinders.

The 7-0 rout, which moved Pittsburgh within one game of a return to the Stanley Cup finals, was a reminder of what the Penguins looks like at their best. It's a mix of star power and key contributions coming from throughout the lineup. It's winger Bryan Rust returning to action after an upper-body injury with jump, injecting the tired Penguins with a burst of energy they hadn't felt in a while.

"You never want to see a guy go out and get hurt, but at the same time he got a little rest," Crosby said of Rust. "You could see it with the way he's skating. He's confident out there and feels good."

Rust's first-period goal in Game 5 was his sixth of the postseason, equaling his total from last postseason -- but in eight fewer games. Penguins center Scott Wilson pitched in with his second goal of the playoffs.

Then there was Carter Rowney. The third-line winger, who finally made the NHL this season at age 27 (he turned 28 on May 10), picked up three assists for Pittsburgh in Game 5, a remarkable amount of offensive output from a player who hadn't registered a point yet in the postseason. He was on the ice for four Penguins' goals and continues to earn the trust of Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, who played Rowney more than 15 minutes for the third consecutive game. Before that, Rowney hadn't eclipsed that amount of ice time even once in the playoffs.

Again, this is what it looks like when the Penguins are at their best. The stars are still the stars, as the sequence on Kessel's goal -- which included a ridiculous no-look pass from Crosby featuring all three, Malkin to Crosby to Kessel -- showed.

But as we saw earlier in the series, it's not enough. The Penguins can't rely just on those three if they want to repeat. It's the attack that comes in waves and the energy the younger players provide that makes this team great.

"It brings en element of enthusiasm or hunger to our group. It's contagious," said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. "When these guys come into the lineup, they bring the energy that they bring, the hunger on the puck. ... It's contagious. I think it trickles down our bench."

The common thread of that energy is that the power source originates from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Penguins organization takes great pride in the fact that the stars who have been around for years in Pittsburgh are now surrounded by a homegrown group of players, groomed through the AHL, that provides the depth and energy necessary to make two deep playoff runs during consecutive springs.

"[They've] gone through a transition," said new Sabres GM Jason Botterill on Monday morning. Botterill was part of a Penguins management group that focused on player development in Wilkes-Barre. "We didn't have the draft picks coming through. It was important that we stockpiled organizational depth. The draft of 2012, that restocked the organization."

The Penguins made nine picks in 2012, including defenseman Olli Maatta -- who opened the scoring in both Games 4 and 5 -- along with goalie Matt Murray, who has now earned consecutive wins since taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury.

Even before that, the pipeline was set in motion. The Penguins drafted Rust in the third round in 2010, followed by winger Tom Kuhnhackl in the fourth round. Right winger Josh Archibald, who has provided a spark in spot duty during the playoffs, was picked up in the sixth round in 2011. Breakout rookie Jake Guentzel was a third-round pick in 2013.

Those guys each saw time in the AHL, but many of them also come from the college ranks. The Penguins like taking college kids late in the draft -- or signing them as undrafted college free agents -- because it allows them more time to watch players develop.

Rust might be the best example of that.

"This wasn't a scenario all along where we felt we had a great prospect on our hands," Botterill said of Rust, a Notre Dame product. "There were difficult times for Bryan."

At times, Rust looked stiff. He was often injured. But he kept working, with guidance through the years from Botterill, former assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald and current assistant GM Bill Guerin.

"What we sort of underestimated is what he learned in the defensive game from [head coach] Jeff Jackson at Notre Dame," Botterill said. "[Rust] stepped into the AHL and knew how to play defense, how to get pucks off the wall and out of the defensive zone."

He also improved his skating, another common denominator among the Penguins' young players. Early scouting reports often cited many of them for having just an average skating ability.

"They all pick up an extra step in their speed," Botterill said.

Botterill credits the players for putting in the work but says there's so much behind the scenes that people outside the organization don't see. Like Wilkes-Barre captain Tom Kostopoulos putting in extra time after AHL practices to work with his teammates. Or Wilkes-Barre CEO Jeff Barrett, who has built the culture and makes sure all his team's facilities are top-notch. Or a coach such as Clark Donatelli, who believed in Rowney both in Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre, and helped develop Rowney's two-way game to a point where his former pupil is a 28-year-old rookie playing a role in a potential Stanley Cup champion.

The success begets more success. Young players saw Rust or Kuhnhackl or Conor Sheary take off last year and believed they could do it too. Then they prove it.

"Now [prospects] Dominik Simon, Jean-Sebastien Dea and Oskar Sundqvist -- they're watching this. They have to be champing at the bit," Botterill said. "Hopefully that drives them this summer, so they feel they can be the next ones in."

It's become the lifeblood of the Penguins success. Crosby and the stars can't do it themselves. We've seen that. We also have now seen just how dangerous the Penguins can be when they don't have to.