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On a team with seven players standing 6-foot-3 or taller, Lightning defenseman Andrej Sustr stands out.
At 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, Sustr is one of the biggest players in the NHL. Upon initial glance at the towering Sustr, one might assume he's a plodding, physical defender.
But with speed at a premium unlike any other era in the NHL's history, Sustr has found a way to succeed as a big man in an increasingly fleet sport.
This past regular season, Sustr set career highs in games (77), goals (4) and points (21) while averaging 16:50 of ice time, fourth among the Lightning's defensemen.
"When you meet him, you're looking way up at him but he was kind of a tall, gangly kid," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. "He had a really, really long stick. With those guys, the speed of the game is tough for them. But I know the one thing [Sustr] has is he's got it up here [mentally]. He looked at his limitations, what he can and can't do and then his brain went to work. And he figured it out. I think that's what pushed him to the player he is today.
Now, he's starting to grow into his body. Now, he's getting bigger, stronger. He's got a little bit more control on his stick. He chopped his stick down a little bit so he could have a little bit more control of how he plays the game. But it was because he got such great hockey sense and a mind for the game, he figured things out. Now, you just keep playing games and more reps and more reps and more reps. He's become a fringe player when he first came in the league to make himself a top-four defenseman. It's because he studies it. He works at it and he's thought it through and it's really benefitted his game."
A native of the Czech Republic, Sustr's journey to the NHL made stops in Alaska, Nebraksa, upstate New York, the Gulf Coast and even Youngstown.
Recently, he talked about his development as an NHLer.
You played for Kenai River of the NAHL in 2008-09. How did a kid from the Czech Republic end up in Alaska?
“I started off the year in [the Czech Republic] but I was not getting enough opportunity I think as I should have been. There was an opportunity for me to go play overseas, to play with Kenai River of the North American Hockey League. They just gave me a short notice to go tryout and see how it goes. I went there in the start of November of 2008. The next year, I tried out with the Youngstown Phantoms and made the team there and went from there.
What was it like living in Alaska?
“It was definitely cold to be honest. Obviously a little bit of a culture shock coming from Europe. It was totally different. It was like a small village. Just the one gas station, a food market and a hockey rink. That was about it but I was fortunate to get a good billet family which helped me a lot at the start of getting used to everything and just getting me started with everything in the [United States].”
You spent 2009-10 with the Youngstown of the United States Hockey League.
"Spent one year. It was good. It was an expansion team in that league but we [were] taken good care of. I got some good coaching there which helped me get to the next level obviously on to in the college ranks. It was a good experience for me."
What was all of this like culturally? You speak English very well. Did you learn it before coming to North America?
"No. I didn't speak much. I took some classes in school. For sure, the biggest struggle was the language. I could understand a little bit but I couldn't really talk. So it took me a few months to get used to it. Once I got to Youngstown, I think I was getting better and more comfortable with the language and was able to take all kind of tests and go to school in Youngstown. That helped me a lot."
What was it like living in Youngstown?
"It was different for sure. I was fortunate to have a good billet family which made everything easier and helped me to enjoy the year as much as I could. It was a good time."
You played NCAA hockey for Nebraska-Omaha for three seasons.
"It was great. I had a great time in college. You're with a group of guys going to school so you're going through the same struggles every day going to school and playing hockey. It was a good time. A really good group of guys. People around university were really great to us and did everything they could for us to succeed."
You attended the Penguins' offseason developmen camp as an undrafted invitee in 2012.
"That was after my sophomore year. It was funny because I went to camp in Tampa a week before that then I went to another camp here just to see what the pro organizations are all about. It was kind of eye opening to see the quality of the players around those teams as far as prospects go. It was definitely a valuable experience for me."
Did the Penguins try to sign you at any point?
"Yeah. There was definitely some interest but I made my decision to come to Tampa and I felt it was the right decision at the time. So far, it's been really good."
You turned professional at the end of the 2012-13 season. What was that jump like?
"Coming out of college, I played a couple of games right away with the big [NHL] club in Tampa then I went down there [Syracuse] to finish the regular season. Then we had a long run into the Calder Cup Finals. I think that helped me to get in touch with pro hockey and gave me the chance to succeed in the upcoming camp in that following summer. I made the team from training camp so I think due to the experience from the [AHL] in the playoffs, it was a big part of it."
You played in Syracuse with so many of the players on this NHL roster such as centers Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat.
"It just shows you how good of a job Tampa Bay is doing with letting their players grow in the minor leagues and making sure that they're learning the right habits that you need to have for playing pro hockey and coming up to the big club. I think they're doing a great job of developing [players]."
You had your most productive season as an NHLer this season. What worked for you?
"It comes with games played. I think I've played over 200 games now. You get more experience. You know how to react in certain siatuations. Offense kind of comes with learning the game and knowing when to jump in the play and supporting the rush."
A lot of people might just look at you and assume you're a big physical defender but there certainly appears to be more to your game.
"I think so. Like you said, people look at me and [think], 'He's kind of physical and stuff.' I think my skating is something I've always worked on with skating coaches and stuff. I think that's a huge part of my game to cover as much ice as possible and keeping my good gap. Obviously, my reach helps me a lot. The physicality, I think I can be a little bit more physical. But I think I do a good job of taking away time and space with gap and my reach. Hopefully I can add some physicality down the road."
(Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Penguins - Lightning
-The Post-Gazette's recap from last night's game. “Everybody in this room knew it was just a matter of time." - Defenseman Ben Lovejoy on captain/center Sidney Crosby scoring in overtime to snap an eight-game goalless streak.
-The Associated Press' recap. Crosby's overtime goal was the first of his postseason career.
-The Tampa Bay Times' recap. "He was tremendous. He played like he's done nothing else but play in playoff games." - Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
-Mike Lange's goal calls.
-A couple of looks at Crosby's overtime goal as allowed by Vasilevskiy:
-And the ensuing celebration:
-Goaltender Matt Murray was all over this puck:
-Murray took a seat in his net:
-Left winger Chris Kunitz got dumped into the Lightning bench in front of goaltender Kirsters Gudlevskis:
-A good look at right winger Phil Kessel's goal:
-Murray led his team onto the ice:
-Happy times for center Matt Cullen and and company:
-Saluting times for Crosby:
-Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was all business:
-A good look at Lightning left winger Jonathan Drouin's goal as allowed by Murray:
-Vasilevskiy hung in for this save:
-A good look at Vasilevskiy's lid:
-A hockey night in Pittsburgh:
-“I was just trying to create a little bit of a spark with those guys. Sid has had some success with [Kunitz] and [Hornqvist] for a lot of the regular season and I thought I would try to go back to that and see how it went." - Head coach Mike Sullivan on reuniting Crosby on a line with right winger Patric Hornqvist and Kunitz.
-Stralman returned to the lineup after missing 19 games due to broken left fibula.
-“There’s still a chance that I could play in this series, there’s still a chance that I could not play again for the rest of the playoffs. That’s honestly the truth.” - Lightning captain/forward Steven Stamkos on his recovery from a blood clot.
-One Pittsburgh design shop is getting creative in response to the Lightning's ban on opposing gear in some parts of Amalie Arena.
-The Bradenton (Fla.) Area Convention and Visitors Bureau is regretting being a sponsor for the Penguins' rally towels distributed for Game 1.
Blues - Sharks
-"It’s all good for me. Just gets you more in the game. I think it gets you more involved in the game. That’s fine by me.” - Sharks forward Joe Thornton (right) on Blues captain/forward David Backes pulling on his beard in Game 1.
-"Nothing we need to overreact to. I think it was one game. I know we're going to be better. I'm sure they're going to be better next game, too." - Sharks coach Peter DeBoer on his team being in a 1-0 series deficit.
-"Well, we were told not to whine for calls, so we're not going to whine for calls. If Pete wants to do it, that's his [business]. But we're not doing it." - Blues coach Ken Hitchcock on DeBoer.
-Former Penguins defenseman Jim Paek and forward Richard Park are trying to give South Korea a legitimate hockey team for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
-Happy 53rd birthday to former Penguins center Doug Smith. Acquired midway through the 1989-90 season in exchange for cash, Smith's NHL career ended with 10 games and two points with the Penguins that campaign. In the 1990 offseason, he joined ATSE Graz in Austria.
-The Panthers officially named Tom Rowe as the 10th general manager in franchise history.
-The Predators signed forward Justin Kirkland (right), a third-round pick in 2014, to a three-year entry-level contract.
-The Canucks signed forward Yan Pavel Laplante, a third-round pick in 2013, to a three-year entry-level contract.
-“Not having the pros would definitely impact the value of the Winter Games.” - IIHF president Rene Fasel on potentially not having NHL players in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
IIHF World Championship
-Avalanche goaltender Calvin Pickard made 13 saves for Canada in a 4-0 shutout of France in the preliminary round.
-Islanders goaltending prospect Ilya Sorokin made 27 saves for Russia which beat Norway, 3-0.
-Russia forward Roman Lyubimov tried to beat Norway goaltender Steffen Soberg all alone:
-Canucks forward Jannik Hansen netted a goal and an assist for Denmark in a 4-1 defeat of Kazakhstan.
-Denmark defenseman Markus Lauridsen put a little too much on this shot:
-Islanders goaltender and former Penguin Thomas Greiss made 14 saves for Germany which beat Hungary, 4-2. Fire Jim Rutherford.
(Photos: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images, Bruce Bennett/Getty Images, Harry How/Getty Images, Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images and Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)