PITTSBURGH — It’s easy to get awestruck the first time a new face walks into the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room.
All those stars. All those glittering resumes. All that talent. Hey, there’s Sidney Crosby. Hey, there’s Evgeni Malkin. Hey, there’s Kris Letang. Coach Mike Sullivan understands it can be a little overwhelming at first.
“When a new player comes to our team, young or old for that matter, I think there’s a little bit of a `wow’ factor because some of the players we have,” Sullivan said. “Everybody has so much respect for Crosby and Malkin and Letang and those guys. Over time I think that wears off.”
If the Penguins wanted to get where they are now – two wins away from the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup – it had to. Fast.
Fortunately, Conor Sheary, Matt Murray, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl are quick studies. The rookies – all of whom spent a significant portion of the season with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate on the other side of the state in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton – have found their footing alongside their high-profile teammates during Pittsburgh’s race through the playoffs and a 2-0 lead over San Jose in the Stanley Cup Final heading into Game 3 in San Jose on Saturday.
There’s the seemingly unshakeable if impossibly thin 22-year-old Murray, who has for now (and perhaps for good) supplanted Marc-Andre Fleury in net. Murray’s 13 postseason victories are a team record for a rookie and two shy of the NHL mark of 15 shared by Hall of Famer Patrick Roy, among others.
There’s the undersized (5-foot-8) and yet redoubtable 23-year-old Sheary, thrust onto a line with Crosby because of his ability to skate as if he’s worried the ice will melt underneath him if he stops. All he’s done is pump in four goals during the playoffs, including the overtime winner in Game 2 on Wednesday.
There’s the 24-year-old Rust, who has a flair for the dramatic. His six goals over 19 playoff games – compared to five in 55 regular season games – include a pair in a series closeout win over the New York Rangers in April and the game-winning marker in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay.
There’s the responsible Kuhnhackl, an intelligent penalty killer who opts for the smart play instead of the spectacular one.
All four in the midst of their first seasons in the league. All four uncowed by the moment.
“I think they’ve been thrown into a lot of different scenarios,” Crosby said. “They’re handling it really well and they’re coming up big for us.”
Thanks in no small part to the leadership of players like Crosby, who have made it a point to make the youngsters feel included, be it for a team meal on the road or a little post practice confab to share tricks of the trade.
It was Crosby who dreamed up the sequence that resulted with Sheary having the puck on his stick and the game in his hands early in overtime on Thursday night. Prepping for a faceoff in San Jose’s end, Crosby told Sheary to line up on the wall then drift over into open space after Crosby won the draw and dropped it to defenseman Kris Letang at the blue line.
That’s exactly how it happened. When Letang faked a shot and drew the Sharks defense to him, Sheary was all alone. There, he followed an order Crosby gave to him earlier in the season when the captain told him not to worry about trying to look for his own shot.
“He told me I was there for a reason,” Sheary said.
And it wasn’t just to get it back to Crosby’s familiar No. 87 as soon as possible.
“He’s really good at hanging on to the puck,” Crosby said. “You’ve seen him use it. The biggest thing is to trust his instincts.”
Instincts he stuck too after Sullivan sat him for a game against Tampa Bay over concerns Sheary was wearing down. As Sullivan did with Murray when he briefly went with Fleury for Game 5 against the Lightning, Sullivan was explicit in his instructions so Sheary wouldn’t start to doubt himself.
“His competitive advantage is his quickness,” Sullivan said. “So if he loses that step, he’s not as effective as we know him to be.”
The respite worked. Sheary has three points in his last four games, including goals in both Game 1 and Game 2 of the final.
“He’s a guy that we try to watch his minutes,” Sullivan said. “We think it’s important that we monitor his workload so that he can keep his quickness and that competitive advantage that makes him as good as he is.”
A player who, like the rest of the Wilkes-Barre crew, is in Pittsburgh with no plans on making the trip back east anytime soon. If ever.
“A lot of us have been together for a long time here, starting in Wilkes and making our way up here,” Murray said. “We’re all pretty close friends and it’s fun to be on this ride with all of them and that’s a huge goal from Conor. He’s been doing that for us all season. So, it’s fun to watch.”