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Conor Sheary returning to Pittsburgh as catalyst in Sabres' resurgence

PITTSBURGH – Since arriving in Buffalo, reporters have interviewed Conor Sheary more frequently than he's accustomed to. He used to watch from his spot inside the Pittsburgh Penguins' locker room as the media horde rushed to speak to Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin after games.

Now, he's part of the Sabres' nucleus, a fast, tenacious winger acquired by General Manager Jason Botterill in June. Sheary previously shared the spotlight with the Penguins' stars, most notably after his overtime game-winning goal for the Penguins in Game 2 of the 2016 Stanley Cup final in front of a sold-out crowd at what's now called PPG Paints Arena.

He'll step into the spotlight in Pittsburgh once more Monday night, when the surging Sabres face the struggling Penguins at 7 p.m. Sheary will receive a hero's welcome that will illustrate why Botterill wanted him to be part of the roster overhaul.

"It will be weird staying in the hotel, sitting on the other side of the rink, in a different locker room," Sheary said Friday in Winnipeg. "It will be a little different. I’ve had a lot of good memories in Pittsburgh. Obviously, when you're winning you grow close with that team."

Former teammates have reached out to prepare Sheary for what to expect. Like Casey Mittelstadt's homecoming Saturday in St. Paul, Minn., Sheary wants to get this game out of the way. New York Islanders winger Tom Kuhnhackl, also a member of the Penguins' back-to-back Cup championships, was welcomed with a tribute video when he returned to Pittsburgh last month.

Sheary will likely receive the same treatment. After all, he had 93 points in 184 regular-season games with the Penguins, as well as 19 points in 57 playoff games. His 23 goals in 2016-17 earned him a three-year contract extension.

After many failed attempts to find Crosby a capable winger, Sheary was able to fill the void, and it appeared he would be a foundational piece following those Cup runs. However, Sheary struggled last season, posting 30 points in 79 games and a minus-2 rating in 12 playoff games.

When the Penguins sought to clear cap space, Botterill pounced, dealing a conditional 2019 fourth-round pick for Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick. That evoked a whirlwind of emotions that Sheary expects to experience again during his homecoming.

"I don’t really know what to expect," Sheary admitted. "Hopefully I can take the crowd and everything else out of it, play my game and not be nervous. I feel like it’s going to be my first game again for some reason. We’ll see what happens."

Sheary planned to spend Sunday visiting friends and area restaurants he says he "overused" during his three years in Pittsburgh. Then, he'll arrive for Monday's morning skate, where he'll continue to build off what's been a promising start to his first season in Buffalo.

Though Sheary's a minus-2, he's been a pest in the neutral and defensive zones, using his speed to create turnovers. That's led to scoring opportunities for his linemates, Kyle Okposo and Casey Mittelstadt.

Sheary scored the shootout winner Friday night against the Winnipeg Jets and has six goals with four assists through 20 games. He's helped change the way the Sabres practice and play. That's been obvious whenever the Sabres are on the ice at HarborCenter.

Sheary's shootout winner gives Sabres first 4-game streak since 2014

"He's got a bit of that (Jeff Skinner) in him, where he can create turnovers and his skating is really good," Kyle Okposo said. "He's really quick off the block. He's tenacious. He battles hard. He's going to get to those areas, he's going to fight for pucks."

Sheary wasn't playing that way one year ago. Though he had a fine finish to his final regular season in Pittsburgh, Sheary struggled early on and again in the playoffs. He leaned on teammates and coaches to help him through it.

Those difficult nights in black and yellow, Sheary said, equipped him for his new role as a catalyst for Phil Housley's relentless two-way attack.

"Hopefully we can get a win, get this out of the way and move past it," Sheary said.

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