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The Inside Scoop: Schultz "On Another Level"

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Before the game on Sunday, Conor Sheary was talking to Justin Schultz about his offensive production.

"I asked him what his points high was and he said 33," Sheary told me before adding with a smile, "I think he's surpassed that by a lot now."

He certainly has, as the defenseman has five points (2G-3A) in his last two games - including setting up Sheary's game-winner late in regulation to give the Pens a 4-3 comeback win over Buffalo - to give him 44 on the year through 61 games.

"He's on another level," Sheary said of Schultz. "He's just playing so well, not only offensively but defensively, he's honing in on his defensive skills and he's been huge for us."

"I just think his confidence is sky-high right now," Matt Murray added. "He knows he's a good player and he knows he has the skill and the ability to get up in the rush and still defend."

I think what's been most impressive about Schultz's year is the consistency that he's playing with at both ends of the ice regardless of the situation.

He did have a slight setback when he suffered the first concussion of his career on Feb. 16 against Winnipeg that forced him to miss three games. In his first three games back, Schultz was kept off the scoresheet - and he admitted to me he was playing a little bit cautious coming off the head injury.

But Schultz has clearly found his stride in the last couple of games, despite a lot of shuffling happening on the blue line with Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta all injured and Mark Streit and Ron Hainsey being added to the mix.

"All these guys are so easy to play with," Schultz smiled. "Anyone that you get paired with, you're happy with. We all do such a good job of working together and we're all good friends, it makes it easy for chemistry or whatever. On the ice, we're just trying to do the little things right every game and take it from there."

I think what's also been so impressive is how far he's come compared to last season, where he spent a decent amount of time in the press box. And despite registering an assist in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against San Jose, Schultz spent much of the game on the bench - playing just seven minutes and 33 seconds.

Now, he's developed into one of the team's top defensemen and the current quarterback of the top power-play unit. Head coach Mike Sullivan said Schultz's own personal commitment to improving his play and getting to this point is what has stood out to him the most.

"He works extremely hard every day," Sullivan told me. "He's really worked at his game. Our coaching staff has tried to challenge him in different aspects of his game and work with him to improve in the areas we think he could get better. He works with Jacques (Martin) and Sergei (Gonchar) and (Rick Tocchet) a lot on just positioning and his play away from the puck.

"We always knew he was a gifted player offensively, and he's helped us tremendously in that regard. He's stepped in in Tanger's absence and done a great job on the power play. He's been a very good player for us."

Murray has a front-row seat most nights to Schultz's play, and I asked him what has stood out to him about his teammate.

"I think he's really good at getting his stick on pucks throughout the neutral zone so he doesn't really have to play defense," Murray said. "He's stealing the puck rather than just playing positionally. He's taking pucks away and we're going in the opposite direction."

Murray used the word 'confidence,' one that Schultz also uses repeatedly when asked what's allowed him to have such success this season.

"My confidence has grown so much with every game this year," he said. "Just trying to work hard and do the right things and it's been working out well. But that's such a big thing in this game, confidence. When you have it, you're feeling good and you're making that extra play and holding onto the puck for that extra second, so hopefully I can keep that and help this team as much as I can."

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