Former Minuteman Sheary shining in Stanley Cup, helping to put UMass hockey on the map.
Conor Sheary isn’t supposed to be here. He didn’t get drafted, he’s undersized and he’s a four-year collegiate player from a relatively small market hockey program. Despite all the adversity, the winger out of Melrose, Massachusetts is playing in the NHL, on the same line as Sidney Crosby and on Wednesday netted an overtime game-winning goal in the Stanley Cup Finals to give the Penguins a 2-0 series lead over the Sharks. Sheary hasn’t had the typical road to the NHL, but his journey is making the moments that much sweeter.
After a very successful college career at UMass Amherst, in which he captained and led the team in points and assists his senior year, he went undrafted in the 2013 NHL Draft. With no immediate prospects on the horizon, he was given a shot by the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at the tail end of their 2013-14 season, in which he produced 11 points in 15 games. The kid can play, he just needed a shot.
In July of last year, Sheary got that shot signing a two-year entry-level contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. While Sheary wasn’t a mainstay with the squad this season, he made his opportunities count when they presented themselves. Appearing in 44 games this season, he provided seven goals and three assists. While these numbers aren’t eye popping, his time on the ice impressed Penguin’s head coach Mike Sullivan enough to make the 5’8” UMass alum a fixture in his team’s playoff run.
Sheary, who turns 24 next week hasn’t taken this opportunity for granted. He’s making the most of it and has helped put the Penguins in a great spot to hoist the Stanley Cup.
In the 19 playoff games he’s played this postseason, in his first playoff run let alone first NHL season mind you, he has provided four goals and five assists, with two of those goals being in each of the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals, none sweeter than the Game 2 overtime winner.
Despite his minimal time in the league, this Penguin’s team has faith in Sheary. Crosby could easily be paired on his line with the likes of Evgeni Malkin or Phil Kessel. Instead, Sullivan has opted for the kid out of UMass, who he has seen grown into a legitimate NHL player right before his eyes.
"“What separates NHL players from the rest of the world is their ability to continue to bring a consistency of play that comes to be the expectation,” Sullivan said. “I think Conor has learned that. He’s not the only one. The young players, I think they all go through that evolution. I think for those reasons, we’re seeing him produce the way he’s playing right now.”"
The team’s faith in Sheary was demonstrated in the pressure-filled moment play calling. The game winning goal was no fluke, in fact it was a designed play called by Sidney Crosby in which Sheary would take the shot.
“’Sid’ came up to before the draw and told me to line up on the wall,” Sheary said. “We hadn’t really done that before. He said he would win it back and Letang would find me in the soft area. It worked out perfectly.”
After the game, Sheary himself was amazed by the moment, but quickly put things into perspective.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “Important moment. Most important, we got a win and we’re up 2-0 right now. It’s a good momentum shift for us.”
Not only is Sheary making a name for himself in the NHL, he is also representing his alma mater in the best possible way, as is his former teammate Justin Braun, who captained the Minutemen in 2010 and is currently playing opposed to Sheary for the San Jose Sharks. Those two, alongside Stanley Cup winning goaltender Jonathan Quick, are putting UMass hockey on the map in a big way.
Seeing NHL talent produced from Amherst is a great recruiting tool moving forward and should help the program tremendously for years to come.
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