When Conor Sheary first got called up from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this year and found himself on a line alongside Sidney Crosby, the Penguins’ captain took him under his wing.
“He told me I was there for a reason; I was playing with him for a reason,” Sheary said. “Don’t look off a shot to make a pass to him. Even though he says that, it’s a little hard to get used to.”
“I think Sid and some of our older guys, they’ve done a tremendous job as far as being mentors, making [the young players] feel comfortable,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “Just even in the small conversations on the bench, it goes a long way in helping these guys with their next shifts.”
Wednesday, with the Penguins and San Jose Sharks deadlocked at 1-1 in overtime, Crosby again took Sheary aside for a small conversation.
“Sid came up to me before the draw and told me to line up on the wall,” Sheary said. “We hadn’t really done that before. He said he’s going to wing it back and Tanger [Kris Letang] is going to find me in the soft area there. Found it pretty perfectly.”
Crosby did win the faceoff and wing it back to Kris Letang, who faked a pass and drew the Sharks’ attention. That gave Sheary plenty of open space in front of the net to shoot, beating Martin Jones just 2:35 into the extra frame to give the Penguins the win – and a 2-0 series lead.
“It usually doesn’t work out like that when you draw up a play or even talk about a play,” Sheary said. “I think [the Sharks] kind of lost me when I came off the wall there. I had a lot of time to shoot. It worked out.”
It’s probably safe to say Sheary has gotten past what Sullivan calls “the wow factor” in regards to his linemate.
“My experience of being around this group is, when a new player comes to our team, young or old, everybody has so much respect for Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin and Letang and those guys. Over time, that wears off, and I think that’s happened with Conor.
“But I also think, with each time Conor’s gotten called up, he has more of a comfort level of what the expectation is and how he has to play in order to be successful.”
Sheary couldn’t ask for a much better mentor in that regard than Crosby, who was one of just six players to show up at an optional practice Tuesday. At the end of the session, he put in extra time working on faceoffs – and proceeded to win 71 percent of them Wednesday, including the one that set up the game-winner.
“It doesn’t surprise me because that’s Sid,” said Sullivan. “His work ethic is unmatched. He has an insatiable appetite to get better and be the best. He’s not as good as he is by accident; he works extremely hard at it. He prides himself in the details of his game, like faceoffs.”
When the Penguins win draws, it helps them get to their puck-possession game. And that’s what they were able to do for the first 40 minutes of Game 2, outshooting the Sharks 23-11 and taking a 1-0 lead on a Nick Bonino shot from wide of the net that made Jones overcommit, leaving the cage entirely open for Phil Kessel to bury the rebound.
But the Penguins couldn’t convert their own chances, including two power-play opportunities. And, in a desperate third-period push for San Jose, a blast from defenseman Justin Braun from the point, with just 4:05 remaining, found its way past Penguins netminder Matt Murray to tie the contest.
That could have deflated the Penguins, who had nothing but a brand-new game to show for their dominance. But it didn’t.
“One of the things I’ve really liked about our team, and this is something I think we’ve evolved over the last five months or so, but our guys just play,” Sullivan said. “San Jose is a good team; they’re going to get some scoring chances. But we liked how our team was playing. We felt like we controlled the majority of the play. Let’s continue to force the issue with our skating, make space plays, get in foot races. That’s the type of game that plays to our strengths.
“There’s been so many examples of that throughout the course of this postseason with this team that, at this point, it doesn’t surprise me. I think we just respond the right way to those adversities; it doesn’t deflate us. I really give a lot of credit to our veteran players in that regard, because I think they lead the charge there.”
And, with the veterans’ encouragement, the younger players’ confidence continues to grow. Even when, like Sheary, they’re playing alongside one of the best in the game.
“You always know he’s going to be making plays,” Bryan Rust, another AHL call-up who scored three goals in the Penguins’ previous two games, said of Sheary. “He’s going to be shifting in and out of traffic, getting out of the way of hits, and he’s going to get points. He’s a skilled player and that’s what he does.”
“It doesn’t get any better; I’m not going to lie,” Letang said of the game-winning goal. “I’ve never scored a Stanley Cup Final game-winner but, just to look at it going in, it’s pretty incredible. It gives us a big boost and a lot of confidence.”
The Sharks, who have lost both contests by just a goal, still have reason to be encouraged as they had back to San Jose for Games 3 and 4.
“You have two teams that are playing really tight hockey,” said head coach Pete DeBoer. “One mistake changes the game, and you’re not going to play mistake-free.
“I liked us across the board a lot better in Game 1. A little puck luck, we win that game, but we didn’t. We had Nashville up 2-0; they came back and pushed us to seven. They held serve at home; we’ve got to do the same thing.”