CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Riley Sheahan is no rookie to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In each of his first three full seasons in the NHL, Sheahan played in 17 postseason games for the Red Wings, including a two-goal, one-assist output in a seven-game loss to the Lightning in 2015.
Stack that experience on top of 365 regular-season NHL games and he’s pretty far from a greenhorn. It’s fair to say, however, that what Sheahan is about to experience when the puck drops Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena will be brand new in at least some ways.
He’ll be taking the ice for a legitimate championship contender, and depending on the condition of Derick Brassard‘s injured groin, he might even be doing it as a third-line center behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Pretty nice progress for a guy who was shopped last summer by a rebuilding team that would finish out of the playoffs for a second consecutive spring.
“For sure,” he told me, smiling wide while sitting in his stall next to Crosby’s at the Lemieux Sports Complex. “The past success this group has, you come here and it’s exciting. I think now that we’ve made playoffs, the fans are ready for it and we’re ready for it. It’s gonna be exciting.”
Brave New World
It might be even be excitement overload for the Penguins to face the Flyers as they begin a quest for a historic third consecutive championship. With Sheahan having not played past Game 82 in a couple of years, we could expect some jumpiness from the 26-year-old Ontarian.
In talking to Sheahan after a practice last week, he might not be ruling out having some nerves, but he’ll rightfully expect to take the scene at PPG Paints Arena in stride. Mostly.
“It adds a whole other element to the game,” Sheahan said. “The physicality, the energy in the building. I think it’s just the beginning of a new season and everyone’s excited. I think the crowd adds a lot to it. When everyone’s excited, it gets your adrenaline going and everyone plays a little harder.”
Sheahan wouldn’t stand out as someone who plays an exciting game, and he doesn’t have an electric personality. Mike Sullivan‘s most frequent adjectives for Sheahan’s game include “reliable,” “responsible” and “aware.” In other words, the 6-foot-3 Sheahan is a large man, but he doesn’t seem an obvious pick to come up big in the most important time of the year.
Or maybe the steadiness of Sheahan’s presence makes him just the player to expect to keep his nerve when the stakes are highest.
“I think you just sort of deal with it as it comes,” Sheahan said. “The first ones, it’s a little eye-opening, but after that, you enjoy it. It’s the best time of the year and you know all the guys are going to be all riled up. Everyone’s going to be going that extra mile to block a shot, get a piece of somebody or put the puck in the net. You build off your teammates, you build off your fans and it’s an exciting environment.”
With Brassard out for the final two weeks of the regular season, Sheahan has reprised the role he seemed to be taking to prior to Jim Rutherford‘s big trade deadline move. In the final games before the playoffs, Sheahan was centering Phil Kessel and Conor Sheary, so he was shouldering much of the responsibility for making Sullivan’s preferred three-scoring-line attack.
Brassard’s return would plug Sheahan back into a 10-minute-a-night slot, including plenty of penalty-kill duty, but Sullivan sounds prepared to roll with Sheary-Sheahan-Kessel as his first third-line contingency.
“I think they’ve played well together,” Sullivan said. “Riley’s been there for most of the year as the third-line center. We think that line has the ability to be an effective line. they have an offensive dimension, but they also have a defensive conscience.”
What’s interesting about Sheahan is that while his shot-share numbers at even strength have been about 5 percent below the Penguins’ team rate, he’s prevented attempts best among any center who’s played more than 20 games for the Penguins this year. He hasn’t produced much offense, but he’s probably the one skater on this team most known for his work in his own end.
On a team like this, with three top-10 scorers and its top two defensemen — Kris Letang and Justin Schultz — known more for their attack than anything else, Sheahan’s skill set could be a good fit in the tight moments to come.
That being said, if Brassard can’t go or is diminished in the playoffs, there will be questions about Sheahan’s ability to chip in offense. He had 11 goals and 21 assists in his first spin with the Penguins, but it was only a year ago that he needed to score in Game 82 to avoid an embarrassing zero-goal season.
“Just getting the opportunity and trying to run with it,” Sheahan said. “Playing with some amazing players and this group of guys, it’s been awesome. I knew I could contribute at this level. I have in the past. Obviously last year was a struggle for me, but just forgetting about it, putting it behind me and getting an opportunity with a great organization was awesome.”
Pressure on? No doubt, but we’ll see how much via the injury report. Sheahan has proven to be capable, but can he be the next Nick Bonino if needed?
“Having depth in general in the playoffs is huge,” Sheahan said. “Knock on wood, but you get a guy go down and you have another guy who can step in and contribute. Or just having that option to switch things up. To have a guy like (Brassard), he knows how to play in all kinds of different roles. Just having that versatility that a lot of guys have in this locker room, is huge.”