Conor Sheary took center stage on national television Saturday afternoon, scorching the New York Rangers for a goal while playing alongside Sidney Crosby and helping the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 4-1 series win in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
And with all of the attention that’s deservedly been heaped on speedy forward lately, it might be easy to forget his pro hockey beginnings.
It was just two years ago that Sheary, an undrafted free agent, finished up his college career and joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on an amateur tryout agreement. He made an immediate impact on the team, recording 11 points (6+5) in 15 postseason contests in 2014, good for third place on the team that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals against the St. John’s IceCaps.
Now, a similar script is being followed by another late season addition.
Jake Guentzel finished up his junior year at the University of Nebraska-Omaha in mid-March, and decided to bypass his senior season in order to turn pro. Pittsburgh’s third round pick in the 2013 draft joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton down the stretch, stepped into the lineup and made an immediate impact with six points (2+4) in 11 regular season games.
But that was just a taste of things to come for the youngster from Woodbury, Minnesota.
Guentzel netted the Penguins first goal of the 2016 postseason and assisted on Carter Rowney’s overtime tally in Game One against the Providence Bruins; he assisted on Tom Kostopoulos’ second period tally in Game Two; and then carried the load in Game Three, opening the scoring 35 seconds into the game and finishing it four hours and three minutes later when he beat netminder Jeremy Smith in double overtime. He also added a pair of assists in the final game of the series, giving Guentzel seven points (3+4) in his first three pro playoff games.
“I’m playing with good players; I think that helps a lot,” said Guentzel, downplaying his production after the clinching game. “Obviously having TK and Rowney with me, it makes it even easier.”
Guentzel’s scoring acumen was well-known when before he landed in Wilkes-Barre, having recorded 40 goals and 119 points in 118 college contests. But adding a new ingredient to an already successful team – no matter how talented – doesn’t guarantee success so fast.
But Guentzel has done more than infuse a little scoring into the lineup. He’s leading the way for the Penguins.
“I feel like you don’t know what to expect from these guys coming in from junior and college at the end of the year,” said Penguins captain Tom Kostopoulos, who has also seen ATOs Teddy Blueger and Daniel Sprong contribute in the run up to, and during, the first round series. “They’ve all come in and done a good job.”
Guentzel has been more than a contributor, though. He’s skating on the team’s number one unit with a 17-year veteran and the squad’s MVP, and I more than holding his own.
“Jake’s come in and earned a spot right on our line,” said Kostopoulos, who also shared time skating alongside Sheary two springs ago. “He’s driving our line right now. It’s a lot of fun to see him.”