Sheary heating up and could be difference-maker for Penguins

Over the past two weeks, Conor Sheary has been one of the league’s top scorers, giving the Penguins yet another offensive threat with the post-season right around the corner.

Looking at the league’s top scorers over the past two weeks, you’ll find the usual suspects. Those chasing the Art Ross, for instance, are among the top five scorers over the past 14 days. Sidney Crosby is leading the pack with 12 points, Brad Marchand is right there alongside him and Connor McDavid, who’s putting his stamp on the league in a big way in his sophomore year, is only one point behind.

But ahead of McDavid and tied with Crosby and Marchand is a somewhat unfamiliar and unexpected face: Pittsburgh Penguins winger Conor Sheary.

Over his past eight games, Sheary has been on fire with three goals, 12 points and while he inches ever-closer to 19 minutes of ice time per game. He’s a fixture on the second power play unit, has put up a pair of points with the man advantage and he’s continuing to rack up points at a rate that makes it seem like the 25-goal, 60-point mark might be where he ends up this season. And when you think about the offensive capability Sheary has shown, there’s reason to wonder if he might just end up being one of the keys to a repeat title for the Penguins.

Few would rank Sheary ahead of the likes of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel or even Patric Hornqvist. It’d be foolish to suggest the 24-year-old is more important to the Penguins’ success than defensemen Kris Letang or Olli Maatta, and Sheary certainly won’t have the game-to-game influence that goaltender Matt Murray will have come the post-season. But Sheary promises to be one of those underlying threats — the secondary guy on a roster with a handful of premium talents — that could put the Penguins over the top.

Matter of fact, that was almost already the case in Sheary’s young career. Heading into the 2015-16 playoffs, Sheary was a relative unknown across the landscape of the NHL. He had played half the season in Pittsburgh heading into the post-season and had managed seven goals and 10 points, but he skated less than 10 minutes per night, which is to say his average ice time was as fourth-line as fourth-line minutes come. Come the playoffs, though, Sheary started to make a name for himself.

It wasn’t as if he absolutely tore up the post-season, but he did make his presence felt. Sheary scored in both of the final two games against the New York Rangers in the first round, and while he went the next two rounds without finding twine, his ice time increased with almost each passing game. He picked up two helpers in the six-game defeat of the Washington Capitals, another two assists in the six-game victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning and then again found the goal column come the Stanley Cup final. In Game 1, Sheary scored the second of three Penguins goals, and he followed that up with an overtime-winner 2:35 into the first extra frame of Game 2.

Heading into the post-season this time around, though, it seems Sheary is a given to contribute even more. He already sits fourth on the Penguins with 21 goals and 49 points. But one major reason why Sheary could be a key scorer for Pittsburgh is that much of the focus from opposing defenses has to be on slowing down Crosby, Malkin and Kessel. Sheary’s not an afterthought, but he’s the versatile kind of scorer who can slide up and down the lineup and hurt the opposition when they’re stuck throwing their weakest defensive pairing on the ice. 

That’s evident from his underlying numbers, too. Sheary has eaten up competition this year. In terms of Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5, Sheary’s 53.6 rating ranks fourth behind only Hornqivst, Crosby and Carl Hagelin, and Hornqvist and Matt Cullen are the only forwards who’ve seen similar ice time and produced a greater slant of scoring chances for at 5-on-5.

If he can continue that into the post-season, there’s a good chance he could be the breakout star for the Penguins as they chase a second-straight title. If that’s the case, if Sheary winning the Conn Smythe? Probably not. But as the post-season approaches, he could be exactly the kind of under-the-radar scorer that makes or breaks the post-season for Pittsburgh.

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He’s not the only player of that ilk, however. Here are five other underrated weapons who could make a difference come the post-season:

Kris Versteeg, Calgary Flames

Versteeg’s post-season experience runs deep with two Stanley Cups and nearly 100 playoff games under his belt, but he’s not going to be the main focus for opposition defenses. Rather, whoever draws the Flames will be paying attention to Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. That’s not without reason. But Versteeg has had a good year in Calgary. Playing in the bottom-six, he’s registered 13 goals and 44 points in 61 games, and he’s roughly a half-point per game player in the playoffs over his career. If teams aren’t careful, Versteeg can burn them.

Ryan Hartman, Chicago Blackhawks

Another year of Chicago heading to the post-season and another year of a youngster set to step up. This time around, it’s hard to bet against Hartman being the Blackhawk who becomes a household name if the Blackhawks end up playing deep into playoffs. Hartman’s flirting with the 20-goal mark in his rookie campaign and his 29 points make him the seventh-highest scoring forward in the Windy City. What to watch with Hartman is what he can create when he really gets moving. A few times this season, he’s turned some heads with his puck skills, and one solid rush can turn a game around.

Paul Byron, Montreal Canadiens

Byron is exactly the kind of player who only needs one chance to burn an opposing defense, and lucky for the Canadiens, there are few players who have been more adept at getting that chance than Byron. One of the speedier players in the league, Byron has already posted 20 goals this season and is on pace to surpass 40 points for the first time in his career. He’s shooting out the lights, scoring on 22.7 percent of his shots, and Byron’s scoring has been incredibly timely this season. Chalk it up to luck or coincidence, but he has five game-winning goals.

Calle Jarnkrok, Nashville Predators

He often flies under the radar in Nashville, but Jarnkrok is the type of bottom-six player who can chip in enough offensively to be a difference-maker. He’s on pace to set career highs in both goals and points with 16 and 32, respectively, and he’s going to get a fair share of his minutes against lesser competition. The difficulty for Jarnkrok will be shaking what have been tough post-season appearances in the past. He has just three assists in 20 career playoff games. If Jarnkrok can find a spark, though, he can support Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson up front.

Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals

Evgeny Kuznetsov has heated up as the season has worn on, Nicklas Backstrom has stayed equally as effective and Alex Ovechkin is a game-changing talent. Add in T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and a bevy of talented blueliners, and you can an idea of how Burakovsky is allowed to fly under the radar. While he hasn’t yet had his breakout season, Burakovsky is talented with the puck on his stick and his 11 goals and 31 points are inching close to a career-best for him despite the fact he’s only suited up in 54 games this season. There’s a 20-goal, 50-point year in the offing, it’s just a matter of Burakovsky getting the chance to shine. This post-season could be what kicks things off.

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