PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby danced through the neutral zone, slipped across the New York Rangers‘ blue line and waited for help. It arrived in the form of a blurring No. 43 black-and-gold jersey, the one worn by a player whose speed and relentlessness propelled him from prospect to unlikely catalyst for a Stanley Cup contender in all of five months.
On the surface, it would seem impossible that Conor Sheary would call for a pass from one of the best players in the world and deliver a sizzling wrist shot that sailed over Henrik Lundqvist‘s glove and into the top corner of the net to help the Pittsburgh Penguins exorcise two years of post-season misery, which is just what the 23-year-old did in Saturday’s playoff series-clinching 6-3 victory.
Barely two years removed from a solid if not spectacular college career at Massachusetts, Sheary now finds himself playing alongside Crosby and Patric Hornqvist on the top line of a team heading into the Eastern Conference semifinals with some serious momentum after vanquishing the Rangers in five mostly one-sided games.
It’s not quite the way Sheary figured his season would end when he began it playing for Pittsburgh’s minor-league affiliate across the state in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last fall. Yet dig a little deeper and really, Sheary thinks it kind of makes sense.
“They’re easy guys to play with,” Sheary said. “They’re smart with the puck and they’re smart defensively. When you get the puck in the offensive zone, they make plays. It’s fun to play with them and obviously we have chemistry right now.”
The kind that is coalescing up and down Pittsburgh’s revamped roster. The team that will face Washington in the second round this week hardly looks like the one that bowed out so meekly a year ago. For proof, look at the score sheet from Game 5’s rout of the Rangers. All five goal scorers for Pittsburgh – Sheary, Bryan Rust, Phil Kessel, Matt Cullen and Carl Hagelin – were playing elsewhere last spring. Now they’re symbols of the on-the-fly makeover put together by general manager Jim Rutherford and implemented by head coach Mike Sullivan.
“We went through a lot of adversity throughout the year with a tough start, injuries throughout the entire year,” Crosby said. “We learned a lot about this group along the way.”
Including that it needed fresh legs to complement Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, talented but occasionally mercurial superstars whom the Penguins have struggled at times to surround with the right parts. For the moment, that problem appears to be solved. Sheary fit right in with Crosby, making up for in sheer tenacity what the rookie lacks in experience.
Sheary kickstarted Pittsburgh’s victory in Game 1 by whizzing past New York defenceman Dan Girardi for a puck in the corner, then flipping it at Lundqvist from behind the net. Hornqvist pounced on the rebound and the Penguins were on their way to early control of the series. Sheary’s tally in Game 5 came after Crosby opted against a simple drop pass from Kris Letang and bought enough time at the top of the zone for Sheary to race into the slot uncontested against New York’s scattered defence.
“That’s a big part of my game in any series or any game,” Sheary said. “I try to use it as much as I can and get on their D and get behind their D.”
It’s much the same for Rust, who spent a little time as an injury fill during the 2014-15 season before arriving in Pittsburgh for good in mid-January. He’s relied heavily on veterans like Malkin and 39-year-old Matt Cullen to get acclimated to life in the NHL and looked right at home in the clincher. His first career post-season goal came after he skated to the goal mouth and deflected in a pretty feed from Trevor Daley. His second came at the end of a two-on-one with Malkin.
Yet the true testament to what Rust brings came on Cullen’s goal that made it 4-2. The Rangers were retreating to gather the puck when Rust forced New York’s Derick Brassard into a turnover that Cullen immediately pounced on, a sequence that looked awfully familiar to Brassard.
“The way they play the game, that’s what we used to do to teams,” Brassard said. “And they did it to us now.”
Pittsburgh’s task now is carrying it forward. The lineup littered with post-season neophytes – including rookie forward Tom Kuhnhackl and 21-year-old goaltender Matt Murray – is playing with a confidence that seemed unfathomable when Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston in mid-December.
Yet the Penguins kept pressing, kept evolving and now find themselves as arguably the hottest team in the league at the most important time of the year, even if the faces helping lead the charge aren’t exactly familiar.
“These young guys that have come up and fit in with this team with this established group and I think both groups help one another,” Sullivan said. “Right now we really like the chemistry we have.”