On any given night Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel can entertain the crowd. They make for an impressive trio, but it doesn’t end there. When healthy they boast a number of others that could be considered top-five players on any other team in the league.Star power isn’t a problem for the Penguins.
That’s the problem though: Health isn’t something that has been very plentiful, and it has taken a toll.
Rather than lament the injuries that are currently keeping defensemen Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley and forward Bryan Rust out of the lineup, it seemed like a good time to talk about the impact of a returning player.
Conor Sheary returned to action Friday and helped the team reel off back-to-back victories over Tampa Bay and Buffalo. They rolled up nine goals over that span and he’s again become a fixture on Crosby’s wing.
Coach Mike Sullivan has shuffled his lines a bit over the course of those two games, but Sheary has logged plenty of time with the Penguins captain. The chemistry between them wasn’t immediately recaptured, but it is coming.
“I think we’re finding it again a little bit,” Sheary said on Sunday. “I think the first game maybe here and there we were a little bit off. When you don’t play together for that long that happens, but I think we’re finding it again.”
Sheary took no time to get in sync with defenseman Justin Schultz, who has been an indispensable piece of the lineup. The latter found the former for the game-winning goal against the Sabres on Sunday, showing both speed and skill that had been missing for over a month.
Schultz slid down the right wing and thought about taking the shot, but instead saw Sheary burst past Sabres forward Sam Reinhart. He flicked a long-range, cross-ice saucer pass right to where Sheary could bury it behind goaltender Anders Nilsson.
“I saw him see me and I was definitely screaming for it,” Sheary said of the play. “He put it right on my tape.”
Now, it would be foolish to try to make the case that plays like this one haven’t happened during the games Sheary has missed. You’ll always see those plays with a team like the Penguins, but Sheary makes an already good team so much better.
Sheary, who comes in at 5-foot-8, 175-pounds, is just as important to the Penguins’ chances of repeating as any player mentioned above.
It’s amazing to see how far he’s come over the past two seasons.
Two years ago he had an impressive debut for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the Calder Cup Playoffs -- he picked up six goals and 11 points in 15 games.
Eyes started to open when he scored 20 goals and 45 points in 58 AHL games during the 2014-15 season, then scored seven goals and 36 points in 30 games last season before a call up to Pittsburgh.
His work over 67 combined regular-season and playoff games -- 11 goals and nine assists -- while playing mostly with Crosby pointed to a guy who was destined to become a good, if not spectacular complimentary piece.
Boy, was that assessment wrong.
The team’s 12-4-4 record without him doesn’t make it seem like he was missed all that much during his two stints on injured reserve, but the team’s offense dipped without him. That’s not a shocking development when you consider that he’s scored 18 goals and 37 points in 44 games and remained the team’s sixth leading scorer after missing the month of February.
His two points on Sunday pushed him into fifth, ahead of Patric Hornqvist.
The team has produced more shots and more goals when he’s been in the lineup.
When he’s suited up this season, the Penguins average 3.63 goals and 36.9 shots per game. In 20 games without him, the numbers dip to 3.05 goals and 27.7 shots per outing. The latter numbers are manageable, but not enough to win a championship.
Crosby has also been better with Sheary. That isn’t to say that he isn’t great all the time, but the Penguins' captain has produced 1.20 points per game while playing with Sheary this season. That dips to 1.06 without his standard winger.
The Penguins are still missing a lot, but Sheary ensures that they’ll have another valuable weapon that gives them a chance to win on a nightly basis.