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Crosby relying on supporting cast

New faces on Penguins' roster taking pressure off captain

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- After Jim Rutherford took over as the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager two years ago, he met with his captain, Sidney Crosby. At that point, the Penguins had gone five straight seasons without making the Stanley Cup Final. Crosby had one goal in his past 18 playoff games.

"Basically what he said is, 'We'll do what it takes to win,' " Rutherford said. "So we talked about different things, about how you can't expect the top players to win every game for you. The superstars always have that extra pressure, but we need to have good balance throughout the lineup."

The Penguins have found that balance, and for all the praise Crosby is receiving for his performance, deservedly, it's a main reason they hold a 2-0 lead over the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final. Game 3 of the best-of-7 series is at SAP Center in San Jose on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Crosby has won the Hart Trophy twice as the NHL's most valuable player and is a finalist this season. He has won two scoring titles and a goal-scoring title.

Teammate Evgeni Malkin has won the Hart Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He has won two scoring titles.

Both are producing goals and points in these playoffs at a lesser rate than they did in their playoff careers previously. Crosby is at .30 goals per game and .85 points per game this year, compared to .43 and 1.18 from 2007-15. Malkin is at .21 and .79, compared to .42 and 1.10 from 2007-15.

Video: Sheary nets OT winner to give Pens 2-0 series lead

Neither leads the Penguins in either category this year. Crosby is tied for third in goals with six and tied for second in points with 17. Malkin is tied for sixth in goals with four and is fourth in points with 15.

Yet the Penguins are two wins from another championship.

Rutherford has overhauled almost the entire roster with prospects he inherited and players he acquired via trade and free agency, while switching coaches and philosophies twice, replacing Dan Bylsma with puck-control-oriented Mike Johnston in June 2014 and replacing him with speed-oriented Mike Sullivan in December 2015.

In Games 1 and 2 against the Sharks, the goaltender, four of six defensemen and nine of 12 forwards were brought up from the minors or acquired under Rutherford.

The Penguins have 10 players with four goals or more, seven of whom weren't on the roster before Rutherford. They have 10 players with nine points or more, six of whom weren't on the roster before Rutherford.

The Penguins' last nine goals, going back to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, were scored by players who weren't on the roster a year ago.

Video: SJS@PIT, Gm2: Kessel opens scoring after turnover

Forward Phil Kessel, acquired in a trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs in July 2015, had one of them. He leads the Penguins with 10 goals and 19 points in the playoffs.

Rookie Bryan Rust, a third-round pick (No. 80) in the 2010 NHL Draft called up during the regular season, had four of them, including both in a 2-1 Game 7 victory against the Lightning.

Forward Nick Bonino, acquired in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks in July 2015, and rookie Conor Sheary, signed as a free agent in July 2015 and called up during the regular season, each had two of them.

Bonino scored the winner with 2:33 left in the third period of Game 1 against the Sharks. Sheary scored the winner 2:35 into overtime in Game 2, taking a pass from defenseman Kris Letang after a faceoff win by Crosby. He has been playing left wing on a line with Crosby and Patric Hornqvist.

Video: Bonino scores late in Game 1 to win it for Pens

"He doesn't seem fazed by the moment," Crosby said. "I think that with a lot of guys that are in this situation, I think they've been thrown into a lot of different scenarios that typically a number of young guys aren't, but they've handled it really well and they're coming up big for us."

The depth has affected more than offensive statistics. It has allowed Sullivan to even out the ice time, and that has allowed the Penguins to play their high-energy, puck-pursuit style, get after opponents all over the ice and dominate possession. They have outshot their opponents in 11 straight games, dating back to Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Washington Capitals.

"Our ability to use the bench I think helps all of us, Sid and Geno included, to play the type of game we need to play to create a competitive advantage," Sullivan said. "I think the players themselves have provided enough evidence that when we play that way we can have success. It's given our guys a lot of belief in playing that way.

"I think Sid and Geno are two guys that have taken a very unselfish approach. They have put them team ahead of themselves, and because of that, I think we have evolved into a team in the true sense of the word."

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