Matt Skoff has seen a few star-studded scenes.
While working out for the past month at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, Skoff has stopped shots from Brandon Saad, Vince Trocheck and J.T. Miller, three local players who enjoyed breaking seasons in 2015-16.
At the opposite end of the ice has been John Gibson, the No. 1 goaltender for the Anaheim Ducks and, like Saad and Miller, a member of Team North America in the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, which represents the top under-23 talent from the United States and Canada.
“I grew up playing with these guys,” said Skoff, a McKees Rocks native who played his hockey at Montour and at Penn State. “It’s fun to see where they’ve gone, but at the end of the day, I’m trying to make my own story here.”
Skoff’s story may eventually read like the other Pittsburgh stars listed above, but it will take a few more chapters to get there.
Montour goalie Matt Skoff stops a shot during the PIHL AA championship game in 2009. (John Heller/Post-Gazette)
While most players skating in Cranberry wear gear given to them by their NHL club, Skoff, 25, remains outfitted in Penn State equipment. He had a stint with the Reading Royals of the ECHL last season, where he signed an amateur tryout contract, but the 6-foot-1, 191-pound netminder is still weighing his options for the upcoming season.
Those include, best case, an AHL tryout or perhaps returning to the ECHL. Either way, Skoff said he’s learned a lot playing against some of the best young players in the league, not to mention someone like Penguins veteran Chris Kunitz, who has joined the group recently.
“My eyes — getting used to shots like these — that’s the biggest thing,” Skoff said. “Just getting experience. These guys all have NHL experience. It’s fun to be out here and see their tendencies. When you give a guy time and space who’s been playing in the NHL, it’s tough.”
So is the experience more intimidating or enjoyable?
“It’s both,” Skoff said. “They’re really nice guys. They’re very approachable. I think that makes it a lot easier, when someone that’s playing above you is very approachable and nice. Especially Tyler Kennedy. He’s been nothing but nice to me. I remember watching him play for so many years with the Penguins and winning the Stanley Cup. It’s cool to see. That whole hockey player attitude is very approachable.”
Skoff is the all-time leader in nearly all of Penn State’s meaningful goaltending stats — games played by a goalie (77), games started (73), minutes played (4,420:36), victories (32), winning percentage (.500), saves (2,114), shutouts (three), goals-against average (2.88) and save percentage (.909).
The Nittany Lions’ season ended on March 18, and the ATO was announced March 21. The quick turnaround was tough for Skoff. So was the fact that he knew nobody.
“There wasn’t too much of a layover,” Skoff said.
He wound up playing 78 minutes and compiling a 1-1-0 record with a 3.10 GAA and an .879 save percentage. The numbers are pedestrian, but the experience was a learning one for Skoff.
“I went from playing with 20 of my best friends to being the new guy on the team. I had to get a little adjusted to that,” Skoff said. “Other than that, obviously it’s a faster-paced game. I think there’s better players. Up the pyramid you go, it’s just that much more difficult.”
OTHERS LIKE SKOFF
Sam Werner and I have enjoyed catching up with Pittsburgh’s best local players. If you’ve missed anything, here are six more stories to check out:
Jason Mackey: email@example.com and Twitter @JMackeyPG.
By now you hopefully have read my story on Matt Cullen re-signing with the Penguins for one year, $1 million. A bargain, if you ask me.
If you’ve followed Cullen at all, or especially if you covered him, the man is incredibly expansive in his answers, one of the best quotes in the Penguins dressing room.
I talked to Cullen for about six minutes Wednesday night. The Penguins do a really awesome thing where they make new acquisitions available to the local media in separate phone calls for about that length of time. We all try not to push out of respect for the player’s time.
Matt Cullen lifts the Stanley Cup after Game 6 against the San Jose Sharks. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)
In our chat, we hit on a few topics that didn’t make the aforementioned story:
• You saw Cullen eating Lucky Charms out of the Stanley Cup with his kids, right? Then Marc-Andre Fleury did it, Kris Letang and others. Cullen started his own mini-trend. I asked him about that.
“It’s a good idea. I don’t have very many of them. I’ll take it,” Cullen said. “I was kind of following what the guys were doing, but it’s so fun to see the kids. They absolutely light up. I’ve never seen a box of Lucky Charms go down so fast. It was unbelievable. It was so fun. It was so special having it at home and having the boys be a part of it.”
• Speaking of Cullen’s sons. Apparently the two youngest ones, need a new daytimer.
“The day before the Cup arrived, my two young boys came running into my room at 5:30 in the morning and woke me up,” Cullen said. “They said, ‘Dad, where’s the Cup?’ I was like, ‘It’s coming tomorrow. Go back to sleep.’ It was funny, just the excitement. It makes it so fun for me to see it through their eyes. It was pretty cool.”
• Logic would tell you this will be Cullen’s last year. Then again, you also don’t expect a guy who’s 38 playing on an $800,000 deal to score 16 goals.
Will this be Cullen’s last year? I’m not wiling to say it will be. Cullen said probably but left himself a few outs when I asked.
“It will probably be it,” Cullen said. “I’ve learned to never say anything 100 percent, but it will very likely be it. I said this last year, and I don’t want to overuse it, but I really like it’s a gift. I really do. To be able to play in the league at this point in my career, at my age, but more important to play in a place that I love playing and my family absolutely loves, I feel very fortunate to be able to do that. To see it work out today and sign it, to be able to play likely my final year here in Pittsburgh, I’m really thankful. I’m so happy it’s going to work out.”
Jason Mackey: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @JMackeyPG.
Goaltender Brian Foster made 24 saves for the Wheeling Nailers in a season-ending 4-2 road loss to the Allen Americans in Game 6 of the Kelly Cup final. Allen won the best-of-seven series, 4-2.
Forwards John McCarron and Cody Wydo each scored goals for Wheeling.
Goaltender Franky Palazzese made 13 saves for the Wheeling Nailers in a 3-2 overtime home loss to the Allen Americans Saturday in Game 5 of the Kelly Cup final. Allen leads the best-of-seven series, 3-2.
Forwards Jarrett Burton and Cody Wydo scored goals for Wheeling.
Game 6 will be played Thursday at Allen, 8:05 p.m.
Forward Dan O’Donaghue had a goal and an assist for the Wheeling Nailers in a 4-2 home loss to the Allen Americans in Game 4 of the Kelly Cup final Friday. The best-of-seven series is tied, 2-2.
Forward Cody Wydo also scored for Wheeling while goaltender Franky Palazzese made 25 saves in the defeat.
Game 5 will be played Saturday at Wheeling, 7:35 p.m.