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Conor Sheary seems to have found a home on Sidney Crosby’s line

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Listed at only 5-7, 175 pounds, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Conor Sheary is the type of player that would have had a difficult time getting a real opportunity in the NHL a decade or two ago. Heck, even today as smaller, speedier, and more skilled forwards become more common throughout the league, there are still probably a handful of teams that would look at him and immediately decide he is too small and not physical enough to get a real shot, no matter how productive he has been at every level he has played at.

After getting a call-up to the Penguins in the middle of the 2015-16 season and playing his way into a regular spot in the lineup, Sheary has become one of the most productive players on the Penguins roster this season, while also appearing to be a perfect match alongside Sidney Crosby on the team’s top line.

Finding linemates for Crosby has always been a topic of discussion when it comes to the Penguins, and there always seems to be a similar recipe for what type of player works best: North-south, straight line players that can play with speed. For a few years Pascal Dupuis was a perfect match for what seemed to work best on Crosby’s wing, and you can see a lot of those same elements in Sheary’s game, especially when it comes to the speed and quickness flying up the wing.

It is showing up in the numbers.

When on the ice together this season the Penguins have outscored teams by a 15-6 margin when Crosby and Sheary are on the ice together and controlled more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts during 5-on-5 play. In recent games the Penguins have had Crosby skating between Sheary and Bryan Rust, a trio that has already scored 11 goals in only 164 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season (that is more than four goals per 60 minutes. Via Puckalytics).

After Sheary’s two-goal performance on Friday night in a 7-1 blowout win over the Carolina Hurricanes, he is now up to 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) in 38 games for the Penguins this season. Among the team’s forwards, that puts him in fourth in total points (ahead of notable forwards like Patrick Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino) even though he has missed seven games due to injury and is scoring at a rate that would be a 67-point pace over 82 games. Even more than the overall production is the consistency that has come with it as he has gone more than two consecutive games without recording a point just two times this season (more than three games only once; never more than four games).

Crosby is obviously a big part of this equation, but it would also be unfair to overlook Sheary’s contributions, especially when he has been just as productive this season averaging more than three points per 60 minutes (in an admittedly smaller sample size) in his 5-on-5 minutes without Crosby centering his line. He’s not just a good player for being undersized. He’s not just a good player because he is playing alongside Sidney Crosby. He is just … good.

For years the Penguins were a top-heavy team that relied entirely on the core players (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang) to almost single handedly carry them as far as they could. They lacked the younger, complementary players that could provide the type of depth needed to be a true Stanley Cup contender. That all started to change last season with a couple of key in-season trades (Hagelin, specifically) and a number of call-ups from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Sheary, once an undrafted free agent that was passed over by every team in the league (including the Penguins) multiple times that has now found a home on the team’s top-line next to the league’s best player, has turned out to be one of the most important.

Video: Evgeni Malkin snares 800th point, fittingly assisted by Sidney Crosby

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Time and time again, Evgeni Malkin‘s heroics are overshadowed by Sidney Crosby‘s even-more-brilliant work, to the point that it’s easy to forget how special No. 71 really has been.

Tuesday presents a useful reminder of both points: Malkin quietly hit the 800-point mark … with the primary assist going to Crosby.

Malkin hit that impressive plateau in just the 680th game of his remarkable career, giving him 15 goals and 40 points (and possibly counting) in 36 games so far in 2016-17.

Here’s the power-play goal that did it:

It’s worth noting that Malkin stands alongside Crosby as a guy with some “What if?” questions thanks to injuries. He was limited to 57 games last season and has been clocking in the 60 games played range more often than not lately.

Even with all of those issues, he’s regularly scoring at a point-per-game pace or higher, something that’s easier to realize when you consider 800 points in 680 games. Remarkable stuff.

You could say that he’s chisteled his spot on the Penguins’ Mount Rushmore in the process:

Update: Crosby scored his 25th goal of the season in this one and the Penguins continued their strong work with a 5-2 win against the Devils.

Sidney Crosby is on one of the best goal scoring runs of his career

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PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby added to his league leading goal total on Saturday night when he scored in the final minute of regulation to send the Penguins and Devils to overtime, setting the stage for Pittsburgh’s 4-3 shootout win.

For Crosby, it was already his 15th goal of the season and puts him three ahead of every other player in the NHL. He has opened up that lead even though he missed the first six games of the season due to a concussion.

Three of the four players tied for second place with 12 goals (Patrik Laine, Alex Ovechkin and Michael Grabner) have all played in at least five more games than him, while David Pastrnak (also with 12 goals) has played in the same number of games — 16.

But it is not just the fact that Crosby is outscoring the rest of the league right now that stands out. It is also the fact he is currently on one of the best goal scoring tears of his entire career. That is no small accomplishment.

With his goal on Saturday, a play where he had to dig the puck out of a mass of humanity in front of the net before roofing it just under the cross bar, he is now up to 15 goals in 16 games.

If you break his career down into 16-game sections he has only ever had a handful of runs that match this current one.

  • During the 2010-11 season, the year where he probably played the absolute best of hockey of his career, he had a handful of 16-game stretches where he scored more than 16 goals. The best of those came during a stretch between Nov. 6 and Dec. 8 where he scored 20 goals. He ended up scoring 32 goals in 41 games that year (while also adding 34 assists) before his season was ended due to a concussion.
  • During the 2009-10 season, when he scored 51 goals and finished in a tie with Steven Stamkos for the NHL goal scoring crown, he had a 16-game stretch with 16 goals in late January and early February.
  • He had one 16-game stretch between Dec. 30 and Feb. 8 of the 2015-16 season where he scored 17 goals.

Other than those three examples, he has never really had a stretch in his career where he has scored goals the way he is at this very moment.

There are a couple of factors at play here.

The biggest one is that he is shooting the puck at a rate that he has not reached since that two-year window between 2009-10 and 2010-11 when he was the best goal scorer in hockey (he had 83 goals between the start of the 2009-10 season and New Years Day, 2011, more than any other player in hockey during that stretch. Stamkos was second with 82. Alex Ovechkin was third with 64).

For a few years after that he drifted back toward being more of a playmaker and puck distributor (sometimes to a fault) than a shooter. That showed up in the numbers in recent years when his shot-per-game averages reached some of the lowest points of his career, especially over the past two seasons.

That has changed this season. After Saturday he is now averaging 3.68 shots per game, a number that matches exactly what he did in 2009-10 when he led the league in goals. Shot volume is a big part of being an elite goal scorer.

The other factor — and this is always a controversial thing to say about great players when they are scoring like this — is that he has had some luck on his side.

A lot of it, actually.

Every single bounce is going his way at the moment, and he has at times scored goals from seemingly impossible angles and on plays where he wasn’t even trying to score. Take the Penguins’ recent 6-1 win in New York against the Rangers when he scored a goal on a two-on-one rush when he was literally attempting to pass the puck only to have it bounce in the net off of Ryan McDonagh. He has had a couple of goals this season that he has scored from below the goal line on weird bounces.

Eventually some of that luck will run out.

There is going to come a point this year where he is still playing extremely well but doesn’t get those bounces and the goal numbers will probably run dry. That is when you will see that 25 percent shooting percentage he is currently carrying around (nearly 11 points higher than his career average) start to regress a little. That is simply how hockey works. But as long as he keeps taking more than three-and-a-half shots per game, those dry spells won’t be as frequent or last quite as long.

You are still not likely to ever see him produce points over a full 82-game season the way he did earlier in his career.

But for the time being he is the perfect storm of shot volume and puck luck, and it is helping him set the stage for what could be a run at the goal scoring crown.

Video: Islanders lose again thanks to this beautiful play by Sidney Crosby

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The New York Islanders are in a pretty tough spot right now.

They entered play on Friday near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, had won just two of their previous 10 games, and to top it all off they had to play the defending Stanley Cup champions who had to be coming in with an extra chip on their shoulders after losing by six goals on Wednesday night.

The Penguins ended up extending the Islanders’ current losing ways with a 3-2 overtime win that was highlighted by another huge night from Sidney Crosby.

Crosby opened the scoring in the first period when he scored his 11th goal of the season, tying him for the second most in the league with Michael Grabner (yeah, you read that correctly) even though he has missed five games.

But thanks in part to a sloppy second period that started with a power play goal after a careless penalty by Evgeni Malkin ignited a brief Islanders rally, the game ended up in overtime. It was in overtime where Crosby would make his best play of the night, faking a slap shot, dangling around Brock Nelson, and then finding a wide open Kris Letang all in one motion for the game-winning goal.

Have a look.

After that performance Crosby is now up to 15 points (11 goals, four assists) in 11 games this season.

The Islanders, meanwhile, are now tied with the Buffalo Sabres for the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Even though coach Jack Capuano recently received a vote of confidence you have to wonder if his seat is going to get a little warmer after yet another loss, especially since the team does not play again until Tuesday when it starts a west coast road trip.

Video: A decade of Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin

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Both players have experienced ups and downs – whether from injuries or disappointments – but overall, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin deliver over and over again.

With Connor McDavid and other young guns infiltrating the rankings, it’s remarkable that the faces of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are still going strong.

Wednesday presents another chapter in their rivalry, which is – prepare to feel old – now at the decade mark.

The video above celebrates what this rivalry’s meant, what it continues to mean and what we might see next.

Does anyone else get a “Friday Night Lights” feel at times while watching it, by the way?