Tim Benz: Sabres’ Conor Sheary proves to Penguins that he ‘can still play’ | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Sabres’ Conor Sheary proves to Penguins that he ‘can still play’

Tim Benz
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Chaz Palla
The Sabres’ Conor Sheary celebrates with the bench after his first-period goal against the Penguins Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.

By the middle of the third period, Pittsburgh Penguins fans were booing like they didn’t want to be at PPG Paints Arena anymore.

Meanwhile, Conor Sheary was playing like a guy who wanted to be traded back.

He scored twice en route to a 3-1 Buffalo Sabres win Thursday night in the NHL season opener for both teams.

Buffalo looked like a team that was excited to start the season. Most of the Penguins looked as if they were asking each other when training camp starts.

More than anyone, though, Sheary was amped to begin the season in his old building.

“I always get excited to play in these games,” Sheary said after the game.

“You want to just prove to people that you can still play. You kind of get the feeling that someone doesn’t want you when they trade you. I took that to heart. Coming back here is always fun.”

Since becoming a Sabre, Sheary has played exactly that way when he has skated against his former team. This is the fourth game against the Penguins since leaving Pittsburgh prior to last season.

The winger now has four goals and two assists against Pittsburgh. One of those goals was an overtime game-winner on March 1.

“I think I know some of their tendencies,” Sheary said. “But I think overall it’s just an excitement to play (in Pittsburgh).”

If by “tendencies” Sheary means Pittsburgh’s struggles when it comes to puck management, he’s on to something.

Yes, even during some of their Stanley Cup seasons — when Sheary was a part of the Penguins — their off nights could often be traced to careless play with the puck.

On Thursday, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said there was residue of that issue all over both of Sheary’s goals.

“The first one, we win a faceoff and just don’t execute on the breakout,” Sullivan explained. “We turned the puck over and Conor is a guy who can finish. He did it for us when he was here. And he is a dangerous guy.”

And on the second goal?

“On the power-play goal we had an opportunity to clear the puck and get it out of the dangerous area and didn’t clear it,” Sullivan continued. “Then the puck is at the net front and when a team is on the power play, they have the extra stick.”

This time, that stick belonged to Sheary. Just as it did 54 times (including the playoffs) when he was a Penguin.

Buffalo center Casey Mittelstadt assisted on both of Sheary’s goals. He was asked whether he could tell that Sheary has a little extra incentive to show off for his old team.

“All that he accomplished here — a couple Cups — I’m sure he is excited to come back and prove it to them,” Mittelstadt said.

Well, “prove it” could have a couple of different definitions. Sheary has “proven” that he can still score when he has faced the Penguins. But for 14 goals and a minus-18 at $3 million last year, that’s not the same thing as “proving” that the Penguins should’ve kept him.

Not only him, but consider the $5 million in total cap savings the team got by making Buffalo absorb Matt Hunwick in the trade, too. Losing Sheary’s 18 goals and 12 assists off the 2018 books was unfortunate. The strain of keeping him for that mid-level production given their cap stresses wasn’t worth it, however.

Hopefully, for Sheary’s sake, he keeps “proving it.”

Whatever “it” is he needs to prove. He was a likeable guy in the locker room and a valuable contributor toward two Stanley Cups.

Sheary’s overtime game winner in Game 2 of the 2016 Finals is etched in Penguins history.

Until Buffalo attains that level of success, being etched as the first star in the first game of 82 in the regular season will have to do for Sheary.

And based on his smile of satisfaction after the game on Thursday, it is.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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