-- PITTSBURGH -- As Brandon Sutter broke down the right side on an odd-man rush midway through the third period of Game 1, the buzz of expectation rose perceptibly in a sold-out Consol Energy Center.
They'd seen this before.
Taking a pass from Beau Bennett, the lanky Sutter cut slightly toward the center of the ice and just inside the right faceoff circle and unleashed a quick, hard shot that took Columbus Blue Jackets netminder Sergei Bobrovsky by surprise, whistling between his right arm and his body.
The goal turned out to be the difference in the Pittsburgh Penguins' playoff-opening 4-3 victory. It was a reminder of the tools Sutter possesses and, at the same time, a reminder of how little is truly known about just where the 25-year-old's talents might take him.
"It's huge. Playoffs you know it's got to be a different guy every night. Suttsy plays against some top lines and he's got a scoring touch, so for him to get a big goal like that is nice and it's nice to see him get rewarded," captain Sidney Crosby said at the time. "But again to win in the playoffs, you need kind of a different guy every night and it's great to see him step up in Game 1."
Longtime broadcast analyst Tripp Tracy watched Sutter, the son of NHL player and coach Brent Sutter, grow up in the Carolina Hurricanes' organization. Tracy believes that all things are possible for the swift-skating, right-shooting center.
"If he wants to be the top third-line center in the league, he can be, I truly believe that," Tracy told ESPN.com Friday as the Penguins prepared to host the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 2 of their first-round series in Pittsburgh on Saturday night. "He's already a good player. I believe he can be a great player.
"With Brandon Sutter, it's up to him because he has phenomenal skating ability."
In many ways, this spring looms large for Sutter. Leading up to the trade deadline, the Penguins were among a small group of teams in hot pursuit of former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler, whose time with the Vancouver Canucks appears to be drawing to a close.
The thinking was that the Penguins would like to get back to a dominating three-center rotation that marked the team in their back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup finals, in 2008 and 2009, when Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal made the Penguins extremely difficult to defend against.
In the end, a deal wasn't consummated and Kesler finished out the season in Vancouver, where the Canucks missed the playoffs, but there is a belief that the Penguins might take another run at acquiring the two-time U.S. Olympian before the draft in late June. But what if they didn't need to? What if Sutter's Game 1 heroics were the start of something defining for Sutter and, by extension, this franchise?
"I definitely want to be the best player I can be. Obviously, here with Sid and Geno down the middle, it's kind of a three-center model they've had here for a while, and I'm glad to be part of that," Sutter said Friday. "Yeah, you definitely want to be the best you can be, and if I'm here playing with those guys, I know that's where I'm going to be. And if I can be the best in the league at that, that's great. I guess that is something for me to work towards."
It's not that Sutter, the 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft who came to the Penguins in the blockbuster deal that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina at the 2012 draft, hasn't done what's been asked of him.
Head coach Dan Bylsma said there was a period of adjustment that lasted perhaps 40 games while Sutter learned the different schemes that the Penguins employed. And this season, with the Pens decimated by injuries, finding regular linemates has also been a challenge. But Bylsma said Sutter has been a good fit and throughout the injury-plagued season, Sutter's role as the team's third-line center hasn't changed.
"And I think he fits extremely well in that role, a third-line center, ability to play in all situations, defensive situations for our team, he's been a huge part of our penalty kill and the success of our penalty kill," Bylsma said. "He's always been a guy, when he's scored a goal, it's always been a big goal.
"He's right around the number he seems to be always be at, the 12 to 15 goals a year but they always seem to be big goals and it was no different in Game 1 for us."
But is that enough for this team? The pursuit of Kesler would appear to suggest it is not. But those feelings could change as the Penguins try to return to a finals for the first time since 2009. When it became clear that Staal wanted a change of scenery, general manager Ray Shero dealt him to Carolina, where he has played alongside older brother and Canes captain Eric Staal.
To expect Sutter to simply fill the void left by Staal's absence wasn't truly part of the plan and would have been patently unfair. They are two different types of players, Staal a more imposing physical presence, who in the 2009 finals was the best player on the ice for either team. And there are lots of elements to Sutter's game that make him an attractive part of the Penguins' arsenal, and there are elements to his game that are still evolving and improving.
"He's got probably one of the heavier shots on our team. I think that's why you see him score those goals," Bylsma said, when asked about whether there is more for Sutter to achieve. "I think, to me, another part of the evolution of his game and another plateau of his game is getting the goals that aren't so pretty."
Bylsma pointed to the Penguins' second goal in Game 1, a crucial power-play goal by Bennett that came shortly after Columbus had opened up a 3-1 lead with a shorthanded goal.
"Beau gets the goal, but Brandon's at the net-front, really screening Bobrovsky from seeing that play materialize," Bylsma said. "That's where when he scores his next game-winning goal, I'd like it to be more of the dirty one in front of the net, banging it home maybe than the high glove that we see on the replays."
Tracy believes there is more for Sutter -- who scored 21 goals in his sophomore season in Carolina in 2009-10 but has yet to return to the 20-goal plateau -- to give and that watching and learning from the dedication and hard work of guys such as Crosby, another level is entirely possible for the popular center.
"Brandon needs to have the zealous nature that Sidney does," Tracy said. "He definitely has the tools."
Can he be the same kind of player as a certain former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner?
"Can he become Ryan Kesler?" Tracey said. "Yes, he can. I truly believe that."
Sutter said he hasn't given the trade talks any thought, especially now with the team in the playoffs. And he said he's enjoyed his time thus far in Pittsburgh, especially now in his second straight postseason appearance.
"Yeah, it's been good," Sutter said. "I've enjoyed the guys I've played with. Again, I've played in second year straight going into playoffs and played in some fun series and hopefully this is another long run we're stacking up for. That's just my mentality. I'm here to win and we've got a good group and I'm happy to contribute whichever way I have to."