The fresh-faced rookies are not entirely responsible for the Pittsburgh Penguins pushing their way to within two victories of their first Stanley Cup championship in seven seasons.
Veterans like Sidney Crosby, Nick Bonino, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel and others have done their part. Heck, even Evgeni Malkin, who has scored only once in 14 playoff games, turned it up a notch there in the second period of the Penguins' 2-1 win in overtime in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
But it's hard to ignore the adventures of Conor Sheary, the Game 2 overtime hero, Bryan Rust, who scored the clincher in the East final last week, and goalie Matt Murray, who has enjoyed a springtime for the ages.
All three no doubt have benefited from the familiarity of head coach Mike Sullivan. Sullivan and his rookie trio began the season in the AHL with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins last fall.
Sullivan had coached 23 games with the Baby Pens before he was promoted to replace the fired Mike Johnston on Dec. 12.
Rust played a handful of games in Pittsburgh last October, but wasn't promoted for good until early January. Sheary preceded him by four weeks.
Murray didn't get the call until late in the regular season, when starter Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a head injury.
"I did have some input into it," Sullivan said of the call-ups. "I think the fact that I had the opportunity to coach these guys in Wilkes-Barre, see what they were able to accomplish in the 20-something games that I was down there with them, certainly gave me a clearer indication of how I could utilize them and put them in positions to be successful. So when they did get the opportunity to play in the NHL, I could cast them in the right roles with the right line combinations.
"I didn't have to go through the learning process because I watched these guys play for 20-something games. I was able to see what they were able to accomplish at the American League level. I think that experience certainly helped me with utilizing those guys in the most optimum way."
Keeping up with Crosby
Rust has fit nicely alongside Malkin and Chris Kunitz — so much so that the 24-year-old Rust, who hails from Pontiac, Mich., and played at the University of Notre Dame, has set a club playoff record for goals by a rookie with six after scoring four times in 41 regular-season games.
The speedy 23-year-old Sheary, an undrafted player who honed his skills at the University of Massachusetts, became only the fifth rookie to score an overtime winner in the final and first since Brian Skrudland for the Montreal Canadiens in Game 2 against the Calgary Flames 30 years ago.
It's not easy to play alongside Crosby. First, Sheary had to overcome what Sullivan called the "wow" factor. He also credits Crosby for helping Sheary feel comfortable.
"Sid and some of our older guys, when they spend time with these guys, they've really taken the young players under their wing," Sullivan said. "They've done a tremendous job just as far as being mentors for them, making them feel comfortable.
"Just even in the small conversations on the bench, it goes a long way for helping these guys with their next shifts. I've witnessed that all year long with our veteran group, with some of our young players."
Murray in elite company
The 22-year-old Murray, formerly of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds via Thunder Bay, Ont., is not flashy, but he a cool customer who wins. And you don't win Stanley Cups without sound goaltending.
What he's accomplished this spring has ranked right up there with the best rookie goalie performances in NHL history.
When he won Game 6 of the East final, Murray became just the third NHL goaltender to reach double digits in post-season victories before winning that many in the regular season. Montreal's Ken Dryden (1971) and Mike Vernon (1986) of the Flames were the others.
Murray, at 13-4 in the playoffs, also is just two victories away from tying the record for most wins by a rookie in a post-season:
- 15 — Patrick Roy (Montreal, 1986)
- 15 — Ron Hextall (Philadelphia, 1987)
- 15 — Cam Ward (Carolina, 2006)
- 13 — Matt Murray (Pittsburgh, 2016)
- 12 — Ken Dryden (Montreal, 1971)
- 12 — Mike Vernon (Calgary 1986)