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Penguins' Crosby producing, but it hasn't been easy

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com

PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby is in a slump and entered the week tied for fourth in the NHL scoring race.

Crosby didn't earn his position among the League's point leaders through a blistering start to the season before eventually tailing off over the past few weeks. He has had what for him has been a down season since late October.

Entering the Pittsburgh Penguins' Wednesday Night Rivalry game against the Boston Bruins (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA SPORTS), Crosby has 43 points but has gone through lengthy goal droughts. He has been visibly frustrated on the ice several times throughout the past month while scoring two goals in 16 games.

That stretch began Nov. 26 against the Toronto Maple Leafs after scoring a goal against the Bruins two days earlier, and coincided with the beginning of Pittsburgh's recent injury troubles. At the time, Crosby's goal against Boston was his second in 12 games.

"It was a bit of a grind there in December, missing so many bodies," Crosby said. "And I think it's tough when you see a teammate get hurt and you see how that affects them. It's tough on everyone. I think with guys starting to come back and with the guys who have come up, I think they feel pretty comfortable too. So they're getting more and more involved."

Crosby has four goals in 28 games since Oct. 30 against the Los Angeles Kings in Pittsburgh's ninth game of the season. In his two previous games, against the Nashville Predators and New Jersey Devils, he scored three goals after failing to score in three consecutive games after starting the season with four goals in the Penguins' first three games.

That encompasses Crosby's first 36 games of the season. So he remains among the League leaders in points despite playing on a makeshift top line on any given night.

Injuries have affected the Penguins more than most teams. Forwards Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist, Steve Downie and Beau Bennett have missed time with various injuries or illnesses. Forward Pascal Dupuis is out for the remainder of the season with a potentially career-ending blood clot in his lung.

Those five are top-six caliber forwards, and their absences have led to several call-ups from the American Hockey League. Because of the lack of stability in Pittsburgh's lineup, Crosby has played with several different linemates and rarely has skated with the same two in consecutive games.

"I feel for Sid and [Evgeni Malkin]," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "They've had a lot of different linemates but they've been able to adjust and adapt, and it's given us a good reference as to who plays well and what types of combinations we can use in the future. I'm not worried about points.

"We're trying to win hockey games and I find Sid, a lot of the time when he has one point in a game, he plays great both ways."

Crosby has centered the top line throughout the season, minus the three games he missed with the mumps in early December, alongside Hornqvist, Kunitz, Dupuis, Downie and Bryan Rust, a 22-year-old forward who made his NHL debut Dec. 13 and has one goal and one assist in 11 games.

"At first you kind of take a step back and you're in awe a little bit," Rust said of playing with Crosby. "At first you don't expect him to make some passes that he actually makes, so you get caught off guard a little bit. Then as time goes on you're just always ready for that pass because he can put it pretty much through anyone's skates, through anyone's stick."

The Penguins attempted to partner Crosby with Malkin, who also has been affected by Pittsburgh's injury situation with two goals in his past 12 games, in an attempt to provide some spark to the dormant offense, which has failed to score more than two goals in four of its past five games and has been held to one or fewer in three of those.

That didn't work. Malkin went three games without a point from Dec. 27-31; Crosby scored one goal, but it was Pittsburgh's lone goal in a 3-1 loss to the Devils on Dec. 29.

Rust has played with each during the past month, sometimes as the top-line right wing with Crosby at center and Malkin at left wing, and said he has noticed the differences between the two star forwards.

"Crosby's more of a give-and-go guy," Rust said. "He likes to protect the puck and do things like that. He's more a pass, get it back, pass, go-to-the-net [player] … [Malkin is] more of a puck-protection guy in the corner. He likes to cycle and then drive the puck to the net."

Sidney Crosby
Center - PIT
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 32 | PTS: 43
SOG: 107 | +/-: 12
The Penguins remain among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference with 53 points. And that is in large part because of Crosby's ability to generate goals, even if he's not the one putting them in the back of the net.

Crosby is on pace for 24 goals this season, which would be 12 fewer than he had last season and eight less than his 32 goals from 2010-11, when he missed 41 games because of a concussion. But he is on pace for 70 assists, which would be tied for the second-highest total of his career, matching the 70 assists he had in 2008-09.

He has five assists in his past two games, including four assists in Pittsburgh's 6-3 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning last Friday.

Crosby always has been a pass-first forward. It's been an instrumental part of his game throughout his 10-season NHL career. However, that became less evident as he scored at least 30 goals in four consecutive seasons where he played at least 41 games, including a career-best 51 goals in 2009-10.

Despite his shot becoming more prominent, Crosby's passing remains his most identifiable asset. Playing alongside him has elevated Kunitz from a player who consistently scored 21-26 goals in a given season to a forward who scored 35 goals last season, nine more than his previous career high.

Kunitz scored 22 goals in 2012-13 alongside Crosby despite the season being shortened to 48 games; his stats equal 38 goals in an 82-game season.

With the addition of forward David Perron, who the Penguins acquired from the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 2 for a first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft and forward Rob Klinkhammer, Pittsburgh added another weapon to Crosby's arsenal. Perron scored a goal, assisted by Crosby, in his Penguins debut Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens.

"I want to try to fit in well with [Crosby] and I'll do anything to get to know him," Perron said. "I think it might take a while. Even in practice I was a little bit nervous doing those 2-on-2's and stuff like that and that's why doing that extra work after practice, getting to know how he passes, how it comes off his stick. It's just little things that I think as a shooter you're trying to get as much as possible so that when it comes in a game you can be ready.

"With him, he can pass it as good on his forehand as on his backhand and he showed that, obviously, last game."

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