Fighting to the End
Sheary a Bright Spot for Massachusetts
by Jen Dobias/CHN Reporter
Off the ice, Conor Sheary is pretty unassuming.
“He’s a real mellow guy,” teammate Michael Pereira said. “He comes off as a quiet and humble and nose-to-the-grindstone type kid. But when he gets down to the rink, he means business.”
Notoriously competitive and difficult to play against, Sheary has attracted a lot of attention on the ice lately in what's been an otherwise down year for Massachusetts. He posted an eight-game point streak from Jan. 24 to Feb. 21, totaling five goals and five assists. Over that span, he also strung together a five-game goal streak despite facing two of the top goalies in college hockey, Northeastern’s Clay Witt and Massachusetts-Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck, twice each.
“He’s just continued to will our team to keep moving forward and stay in games,” head coach John Micheletto said. “He’s scored some big goals during that stretch.”
One happened to be the 100th point of his collegiate career. On Feb. 14, the Minutemen found themselves trailing No. 7 Massachusetts-Lowell, 2-0, entering the third period. Adam Phillips drew Massachusetts within one, and Sheary evened the score just past the halfway mark of the frame.
On the power play, Sheary took a pass at the top of the circle and rifled a shot through traffic and over Hellebuyck’s glove. While it was an individual milestone, Sheary talked about it more as a goal that rallied his team, even though the River Hawks clinched the win with a score in the last second of regulation.
“It was a big goal at the time. It got the team going again,” Sheary said. “It meant a lot to me and it felt good to get it out of the way.”
This year, Sheary has been a point-per-game player against nationally-ranked teams, totaling 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 16 games. Massachusetts went 2-12-2 in those contests but was rarely blown out, falling one score short six times and only being topped by three or more goals twice. Like their captain, the Minutemen aren’t easy to play against.
Much of Sheary’s game is built on winning puck battles and forcing turnovers using his speed and tenacity. He’s usually one of the smallest players on the ice, but he doesn’t shy away from contact and uses his strength to outmuscle larger opponents.
“Don’t look at the 5-foot-9” and the 100-and-whatever pounds that we list him at on the scoresheet,” Micheletto said. “Look at the way he plays, look at the way he wins puck battles and takes pucks to the net. He plays much bigger than those numbers.”
This was on display in UMass’ 3-0 win over No. 11 Northeastern at Matthews Arena on Feb. 7. Throughout the game, Sheary was all over the ice, disrupting plays, picking off passes and thoroughly frustrating the Huskies.
On a power play late in the second period, Northeastern had a prime chance to tie the game. But Sheary got the puck and carried it into the attack zone. After being steered behind the net by a defenseman, he won a battle along the boards and sent the puck to Phillips. He finished the play by burying Phillips’s pass on a blistering one timer.
“At 1-0 shorthanded on the road against a nationally-ranked team, it could’ve easily been a 1-1 game at that point,” Micheletto said. “He just willed a two-man play between him and Adam. It was a huge goal to extend the lead to two.”
Sheary is definitely a pest to play against, but he rarely crosses the line. He has taken only one penalty – a minor for tripping on Feb. 15 – in the regular season.
“He’s got that quiet drive. He’s one of those guys that you see it in his eyes, but he’s not that guy that it’s brimming over to the point that he’s foaming at the mouth,” Micheletto said. “There’s not a night or a shift that you say, ‘Jeez, Conor took that one off.’ He hates to lose even down to a simple one-on-one battle. That’s, in my opinion, why he’s been such a great player in a very difficult league to be a great player.”
And Sheary has had plenty of individual success during his time in Amherst. He’s the 12th Minuteman to reach the century mark and is currently eighth all time in points (103) and assists (65) in program history. But team success has eluded him and his eight classmates.
The class of 2014 hasn’t finished above .500 or won a playoff game. This season has been especially disappointing, as the Minutemen failed to reach the double digits in wins in the regular season and posted a 4-13-3 record in Hockey East play.
Sheary isn’t one to make excuses. When pushed, he acknowledged that coaching staff turnover has presented challenges, but he wouldn’t pin Massachusetts’s struggles on that, saying that it’s the players’ responsibility to learn the new systems. He never brought up an unlucky bounce or a bad call. He just expressed his frustration that the team hasn’t achieved its goals.
Sheary also pointed out that “it’s a new season” in the playoffs. At the moment, the Minutemen don’t control their destiny. What’s given is that they’ll be the away team in the Hockey East tournament’s new single-elimination first round. The seniors will face a daunting road as they try to make their first trip to the TD Garden. But it’s their last chance to leave their mark at Amherst.
“We haven’t had the winning record that we wanted since we came in as freshmen. We want to win and to not get those results is really frustrating for myself and everyone in the locker room,” Sheary said. “But people gotta know that we’re still working and nobody’s given up. Just keep an eye on us in the playoffs.”
And keep an eye on Sheary. You can be sure he’ll be fighting until the very end.