PITTSBURGH -- Throughout the early portion of this season, Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby vowed he would eventually convert on his scoring chances.
He said so after failing to score in his first five games. When Crosby scored five points in 11 October games and was held without a point in nine of those 11, it was said again. And when Crosby entered December with 15 points and five goals in 23 games, averaging .65 points per game when he had never been held under a point per game in his 11-year NHL career, he made the same promise.
Then, December came, and Crosby's shots began to go in.
After a 3-2 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday, the front end of a home-and-home series that will conclude at United Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports), Crosby has scored seven goals in his past 14 games; six in his past six games; five in his past four games.
Crosby has scored at least one goal in each of his past four games after sending a snap shot past Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford in the third period Tuesday before backhanding a shot off the left post that could have tied the game 2-2 moments later. It's his first such streak since Dec. 20-28, 2010, when he scored in five straight.
"I think we're all excited that he's playing as well as he is," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "Probably nobody is more excited than Sid himself. He's playing extremely hard. He's trying to do it the right way. He's paying attention to the details on everything from his shift-length to his decision making with the puck. All of those details give him the chance to be the player we all know he can be."
Since Dec. 1, Crosby leads the Metropolitan Division with 16 points, one more than teammate Evgeni Malkin and Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom.
It's helped that the remaining Penguins have improved as well. Pittsburgh has earned a point in six of its past seven games (4-1-2) while averaging 36 shots.
"I think we're just creating things consistently," Crosby said. "When you're doing that, it's easy to relax a little bit more, knowing that a chance you get may not be the last you get in a game. I think that when you're struggling to get chances, I think that can kind of create that kind of mentality, that 'maybe I missed that one chance, I might not get another one.' Whereas you're creating 40 shots and a lot of scoring chances, you trust that if you miss that one, well, someone else is going to get another one the next shift."
The Penguins' shot production increased dramatically after Sullivan's hiring on Dec. 12, but didn't pay immediate dividends.
Pittsburgh had 45 shots in Sullivan's first game, but lost 4-1 to Washington on Dec. 14. It took 34 shots two days later, but was shutout by Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. In their next two games, the Penguins again had more than 30 shots, but scored twice and once against the Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes, respectively.
In Sullivan's first four games, each a loss, Pittsburgh scored on 2.68 percent of its shots.
Things changed. Before their loss on Tuesday, the Penguins won three of their previous six games 5-2, against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Dec. 21, the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 31 and the New York Islanders on Jan. 2.
The difference has been Pittsburgh's net-front presence. Early in Sullivan's tenure, the Penguins generated a bulk of shots with little traffic in front, making it relatively easy on goaltenders to see and absorb pucks. Recently, forwards Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz have lived around the opponent's crease.
Center - PIT
GOALS: 12 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 31
SOG: 115 | +/-: -2
That's resulted in Pittsburgh's offensive uptick, and particularly, Crosby's. With Kunitz in front 5-on-5 and Hornqvist taking that role on the power play, Crosby's shots have the added danger of less visibility.
"[We are] just shooting when we have the opportunities and just taking what they give us," Crosby said. "Not trying to force anything. If the shot's there, take it. And then, when they're pressuring you, not giving us a lot of time and space, you have to execute under those conditions. We've been able to do that."
Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews has had a similar season, after a slow start of three assists and zero goals in his first seven games. He has also come on recently, despite his desire to produce further, with one point in each of his past five games, including his 14th goal of the season with 1:14 remaining in the second period against Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Toews compared Crosby's early struggles to his own, as well as the Penguins to the Blackhawks as a whole.
"I hope it's only a matter of time [for me]. It seems to be for Sid," Toews said. "He's playing well lately and, obviously, him and [Phil] Kessel, and Malkin, are starting to put up the numbers I think everyone expected them to. So we'll have to be aware of those three. I think sometimes it can be reflective of what the team is going through too. … It helps your team's confidence. I think everyone feels they can step up as an individual and get lucky around the net."
Crosby's performance has led to that level of team confidence Toews mentioned, Sullivan said.
"For me, the most important thing is he's playing extremely hard," Sullivan said. "That's how we have to play to give ourselves a chance to win, regardless of who you are. There's a fine line in the League between winning and losing, or as an individual, between having success or not having success. I think it needs to start with your work ethic, your passion and your energy. I think he's bringing that, and I think it's infectious with our group."