Thursday, June 2, 2016

The stories about Conor Sheary are simply legendary

By Larry Wigge

It was Sid's idea.

It was almost like little kids diagramming a play in the mud. Hutt, hutt, hutt.

According to Conor Sheary, Kris Letang told him that Sidney Crosby was going to get the faceoff back to him. Then, Letang would slip a pass to Sheary ... and he should SHOOT.

What Crosby didn't say was Patric Hornqvist would screen the goalie.

In real life ... Sheary's shot from just inside the left circle zipped by Martin Jones' glove and into the net 2:35 into overtime to give the Penguins a 2-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday night and a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final.

"It's pretty surreal," said Sheary, who couldn't believe how it worked.

Sheary is the unheralded, undrafted 23-year-old playing and producing on Crosby's left wing. He scored the second goal of the Penguins’ series-opening win on Monday night after receiving a brilliant feed from the Pittsburgh superstar.

"I don't know what it is, but he does makes it pretty easy to play with him," Sheary said of Crosby. "He has got some great vision. He can find you almost anywhere on the ice. That pass from his backhand, he is really good at that. He is deceptive.

"You just have to be ready to get the puck anywhere on the ice. You have to focus on where he is on the ice and know that he can get the puck to you at any time."

It might simply be that great players -- or at least players with great pedigree and star potential -- are used to having the puck more, while lesser lights more easily defer to Crosby. It was the third goal and eighth point of the playoffs for Sheary. The lowest-paid player on the team roster is, for the moment, lining up with the arguably the game's top talent on the biggest stage possible.

"His speed automatically pushes guys back," Crosby said. "On top of that, he can hold on to the puck. If he needs to create some time and space, he can hold on to it and delay and allow guys to help him out. That’s important."

Sheary, a five-foot-eight 175-pounder, was undrafted out of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he played for four full seasons. The native of Winchester, Mass., led Pittsburgh's AHL at Wilkes-Barre this season with seven goals and 29 assists in 30 games.

Most clubs were only offering amateur tryouts. Pittsburgh, Sheary said, was one of the few teams seriously interested in his services.

"I think being overlooked a few times just makes that a little easier for to have that chip on my shoulder," he said.

"Just being an undersized guy, there's always going to be criticisms," Sheary said.

And he carries that chip into every game, right?

"Exactly. You gotta play that way."

For your information: Crosby, who won 71 percent of his draws in Game 2 (17/24), made short work of the overmatched winger and sent the puck cleanly back to Letang. The defenseman quickly found Sheary in the high slot, where he launched the game winner.

Sheary became just the fifth rookie in Stanley Cup Final history to score an OT winner. The others: Montreal's Brian Skrudland (Game 2, 1986, vs. Calgary), Montreal's Jacques Lemaire (Game 1, 1968, vs. St. Louis), Montreal's Jimmy Peters (Game 2, 1946, vs. Boston) and Alf Pike of the New York Rangers (Game 1, 1940, vs. Toronto).

Mike Sullivan being promoted from the AHL to replace Mike Johnston as coach in early January was Sheary's ticket to the NHL.

"It's been a bit of a whirlwind since the coaching change," said Sheary. "I got my chance to come up a week after. I think that change really helped a lot of our young guys, especially myself, to come up and already having the trust of our coach. And getting an opportunity to play in 40-someodd games and to get my first Stanley Cup playoff experience all in one year."

The speedy left winger has skated in 44 regular season games, potting seven goals and 10 points. He potted a pair of goals in a crucial 5-3 win against the Rangers, March 13 at Madison Square Garden.

In 18 postseason games, Sheary has remained sharp, scoring three goals and eight points.

"It seems like a lot," Sheary said. "And you have to try to take it all in and experience as much as you can, but also play the moment, play to your strengths and play as best as you can."

"I didn't have to go through the learning process because I watched these guys play for 20-something games," Sullivan said. "I was able to see what they were able to accomplish at the American league level. I think that experience certainly helped me with utilizing those guys in the most optimum way."

The rookies didn't have to worry about getting benched if they made mistakes.

"He trusted us and we also trusted him," Sheary said. "We had a good record down there and we knew his system works. The transition coming up here was pretty easy for us."

What a difference a year makes.

Entering the 2016 Stanley Cup tournament, these youngsters appeared to be no more than the supporting cast for a star-studded Penguins team featuring big names like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Now, six weeks later, the fill-ins are occupying front and center roles.

"They've been playing great," Kessel said. "They're great players."

During a practice day in the first round series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers, a bespectacled, well-groomed kid who didn't look a day over 17 stepped to the podium in the interview room and began fiddling around with the microphone.

"I don't recognize him," said one reporter. "He must be some P.R. intern."

Try again.

More like Sidney Crosby's winger.

You can't tell the players without a program, obviously. Or at least a phone with a Google search engine.

The baby-faced chap up at the podium was, in fact, Conor Sheary who, along with forward Bryan Rust and goalie Matt Murray, have stepped to the forefront for the Penguins in Pittsburgh’s march to a Stanley Cup.

During the course of this playoff run, we have learned that as a ninth-grader Sheary, was barely 5 feet tall and like 100 pounds.

Talk about this as a tall tale ... or simply one of the most delicious stories to come out of the playoffs.

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