“How many text messages did you get?” Sullivan asked the rookie center.
“About 100,” Dea answered.
Yes, Dea’s cell phone blew up, as they say, late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, after the 23-year-old scored his first career goal in a 3-1 victory over the Carolina Panthers at PPG Paints Arena. By the time the Penguins got ready to take the ice at noon Wednesday, Dea had finally caught up on his messages.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” the native of Laval, Quebec said with a smile. “I answered everybody. I appreciated that so many people got in touch with me. It was nice to hear from so many family members and friends. Some of the people I hadn’t been in touch with for a few years. It made everything even more special. It was really cool.:”
Of course, scoring your first NHL goal is about as cool as it gets.
“You never forget that,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “It doesn’t matter who many years you play or how many goals you score, that first one is always special.”
Crosby has scored 399 regular-season goals during his 13 years in the league and found the back of the net 57 more times in 148 playoff games. Yet he vividly remembers the first goal, which came in his third game on Oct. 8, 2005, against the Boston Bruins at Mellon Arena.
“It was just a thrill,” Crosby said. “The biggest thing is you just want to get to the NHL and have a chance to play at the highest level of the sport. Once you get here, though, you want to show you can contribute, show that you belong. Scoring that first goal makes such a big difference. It takes that monkey off your back.”
Patric Hornqvist can also attest to the feeling, even after lighting the lamp 189 times in his 10-year career with the Nashville Predators and Penguins. The right winger’s initial goal came in his fourth career game in 2015 against the Dallas Stars.
“You only score your first goal once, so you really try to enjoy the moment,” Hornqvist said. “I just remember how happy I was one I saw the puck go in the net. You grow up hoping to be a professional hockey player when you are a kid, and you always imagine what it would be like to score a goal in an NHL game. When it actually happens, it’s so special, just a great moment that you have for the rest of your life.”
Dea experienced that moment in the second period Tuesday night when he finished a pass from Bryan Rust while skating down the slot. The goal broke a 1-1 tie and proved to be the game-winner as the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions improved to 7-3 since the beginning of January to raise their overall record to 26-21-3 going into Thursday night’s game against the visiting Minnesota Wild.
Dea’s teammates got nearly as much enjoyment from his wild fist-pumping celebration after beating veteran goaltender Cam Ward than from the fact the goal helped the Penguins continue their new year surge.
“We all had smiles on all our faces,” Crosby said. “You could see how excited he was. We’ve all had that moment and know how special it is. You just feel good anytime you see someone come up get that first goal. It gives everybody a boost.”
Dea notched his first goal in his fourth career game. He made his NHL debut in the 2016-17 regular-season finale then was called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL last Wednesday.
After playing 5:35 as the fourth-line center Tuesday, Dea’s ice time could increase against the Wild as he has made a good impression on Sullivan.
“His game has really matured since I coached him in Scranton,” said Sullivan, who was promoted to Pittsburgh to replace Mike Johnston during the 2015-16 season. “He is proving that he is capable of playing up here.”
Now, Dea has a game-winning goal to bolster his resume. It also led to a reporter asking Sullivan if he remembered first goal.
“I think everybody does,” Sullivan said with a smile. “It was against Vancouver.”
Indeed, Sullivan got goal No. 1 in the 13th game of his rookie season with the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 26, 1991, against the visiting Canucks.
Sullivan then laughed when asked if he got 100 text messages.
“That was a long time ago,” he said. “I don’t think they had cell phones back then.”