PITTSBURGH — Because of an injury to Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid last season, NHL fans had to wait until Tuesday to see him go head-to-head against Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
Two generational talents. Two of the most anticipated No. 1 overall picks in recent memory. The best player in hockey right now (Crosby) going against the player that will eventually take over that title (McDavid).
It is a special matchup, and while the Penguins’ 4-3 come-from-behind win mostly delivered on the anticipation (it was a fast, back-and-forth game with a ton of scoring chances and odd-man rushes), it ended up being decided by somebody other than the two superstars.
It was decided by an undrafted free agent by the name of Conor Sheary.
Sheary scored two goals in the Penguins’ win — one on a blistering slap shot off the rush to open the scoring, and then a goal right in front of the net with less than two minutes to play in regulation — as they erased what had been a 3-1 deficit midway through the second period.
Even though he is not one of the superstar core players in Pittsburgh, Sheary’s development since the middle of last season is an example as to why the Penguins won the 2016 Stanley Cup and are off to a 9-2-2 start this season.
It is all about having the ability to roll out four lines full of players that can all score.
In a sport like hockey where the best players only play a third of the game, most games do not come down to the superstars. Sometimes they get shut down. Sometimes they get held off the scoresheet. Sometimes they cancel each other out.
That means games usually get decided by which team is deeper. With players like Sheary in their bottom-six, the Penguins have been the deeper team on most nights over the past year. Especially when it is a player as versatile as Sheary.
“I can bounce him around on any line,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He is a good two way player and he has great offensive instincts. Sometimes when [Carl] Hagelin is killing penalties I can come back with Conor on Sid’s line. They played together in the playoffs, they have chemistry. It is nice to have that luxury where I can move him around. He can play right win, he can play left wing. He is a good player.”
But while Sheary scored two goals, including the winner, McDavid was also sensational in defeat and showed why less than 70 games into his NHL career he is already among the best players in the entire sport.
On Tuesday he was noticeable every time he was on the ice and seemed to be leading an odd-man rush on every shift.
His two assists in the first period where a lesson in how devastating his speed is to opposing defensemen.
Over the past six years there have been a lot of players that have come along and been considered a threat to take the title of best player in the world away from Crosby.
Claude Giroux for a brief period of time in 2012 after the Flyers beat the Penguins in the playoffs, thanks in part to a great serious from Giroux. Jonathan Toews as the Blackhawks kept winning the Stanley Cup every other year.
But McDavid is the player that should be able to actually take that title away at some point.
It might not be this year, or even next year, but he is clearly next in line.
But on Tuesday both he and Crosby took a backseat to Conor Sheary.