CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa – It’s not often an NHL coach gets a roster where eight players were guys he coached in the minors.
Yet that’s one of the Pittsburgh Penguins' success stories this spring during their Stanley Cup playoff run under coach Mike Sullivan.
Among the eight players, two have really stood out – Conor (cq) Sheary and Bryan Rust. The 23-year-old Sheary plays on Sidney Crosby’s line with Patric (cq) Hornqvist.
Sheary had another fine, one-timer off a pass from Crosby during the Penguins’ 3-2 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.
That’s three goals, and eight points for Sheary in these playoffs.
“The fact I had the opportunity to coach these guys in Wilkes-Barre and see what they were able to accomplish in 20-some games down there, gave me a clear indication on how I could utilize them and put them in positions to be successful,” Sullivan said Tuesday at the team’s practice facility – UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
“So when they did get the opportunity to play in the NHL, I could cast them in the right roles and right line combinations. I didn’t have to go through a learning process. I watched these guys play [before].”
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What made him think a very under-sized Sheary – barely 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds – could play with Crosby, himself just 5-11, was more of a gamble, but it’s worked. Sheary was an undrafted free agent -- not a Penguins’ draft pick.
There’s chemistry, too.
“It’s speed, he creates space,” Crosby said.
Sheary seems aware that he’s an unheralded player on a line with one of the greatest players in the world, competing in the sport’s ultimate championship.
“He [Crosby] makes it pretty easy to play with him when he finds you all over the ice,” Sheary said. “And he can talk to you on the bench.”
“I’d like to fill that role,” he said.
Sheary is not all that different from Crosby in terms of what he brings to the ice. In hockey parlance, he’s quick in tight spaces. The two complement each other.
“Really good hands,” is how Sullivan describes Sheary. “He can play that give-and-go game in tight spaces underneath the hash marks. He sees the ice pretty well.”
Which is how you might also describe Crosby’s skillset.
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Sullivan feels Sheary’s speed allows Crosby more space to get more creative on the ice. Crosby was literally all over the ice in Game 1 with his skating and set-ups.
“We want chemistry throughout our lineup,” Sheary said. “To have four lines get going and find chemistry together is huge. I think the first game is an indication.”
Crosby admitted how unfazed some of these Penguin rookies are, particularly Sheary and Rust, who fill major roles.
“It shows their confidence and comfort level in a new experience,” Crosby said. “Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, it's easy to be open-eyed a bit. You tend to think a little bit when you get into situations. They play their game and they get rewarded for it.
“You definitely fast track the learning curve when you get thrown into bigger responsibilities early on ... That being said, you still can’t necessarily prepare for the Stanley Cup Final.
“Certain things help you, but until you are there, no one knows how you’ll react, including yourself. Those guys have taken everything in stride.”
Sheary admits surprise to find himself relaxed in his first-ever Cup Final.
“I don’t think you would have expected this in our first, full year,” Sheary said. “But that is all part of the process and part of the development of this organization. And they’ve done a good job with us.”
Part of it, he said, is knowing you’re bucking the odds every time you go onto the ice, as a smaller, unknown kind of player.
“The prototypical player is 6-feet, 200 pounds,” he said. “You just play with your urgency and play within your skill set. You always have to have that competitive edge. If you have that, you’ll be okay.
“I’m still a rookie within the room, but the experience I’ve had throughout the regular season and with the playoffs, you kinda feel more comfortable and don’t feel like a rookie.”
“I guess I am still a rookie at the end of the day,” Sheary conceded.