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Sidney Crosby ultimate X-factor for Penguins in Game 7 vs. Senators

Pittsburgh captain has history of elevating performance when stakes are highest

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

OTTAWA -- The Pittsburgh Penguins have plenty of reasons to be confident heading into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators in Pittsburgh on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

But one stands above all the matchups, coaching decisions and other intangibles: Sidney Crosby.

Pittsburgh's captain is the ultimate X-factor in a game like this. And with the roll he's been on, it's understandable that his teammates believe he will lead them past the Senators and back to the Stanley Cup Final.


[RELATED: Complete Penguins vs Senators series coverage]


"Obviously his play speaks for itself," center Matt Cullen said Wednesday. "He's unbelievable. But he seems to rise up in these occasions and we've seen it. His play elevates when the stakes are highest."

At times, it's felt like everything Crosby, 29, has touched the past two years has turned to gold. There have been some down moments of course, but whenever there was a championship trophy to be handed out, he seemed to be the one getting it.

It began at the 2015 IIHF World Championship in the Czech Republic, when after a disappointing season with the Penguins, Crosby helped Canada win the gold medal. Last season, Crosby won the Stanley Cup for the second time and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy after helping the Penguins to their fourth championship.

At the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in Toronto in September, Crosby was captain of champion Team Canada and was voted the most valuable player after leading the tournament with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in six games.

On hockey's biggest stages, the spotlight always seems to find him.

In the Penguins' Cup-clinching 3-1 win against the San Jose Sharks in the Final last year, Crosby set up a second-period goal by defenseman Kris Letang that broke a 1-1 tie and forward Patric Hornqvist's empty-net goal with 1:02 remaining in the third. In Team Canada's 2-1 title-clinching victory in Game 2 against Team Europe in the World Cup championship series, Crosby set up the tying goal by forward Patrice Bergeron with 2:53 remaining in the third.

Video: CAN@EUR, Gm2: Crosby discusses team effort to win WCH

"I just think he in particular has played in arguably the most high-stakes environments in all different venues, whether it be the NHL, the Olympics, the World Cup," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "He has such a wealth of experience to draw on and he's a fierce competitor."

The Penguins could have been discouraged after losing 2-1 to the Senators in Game 6 on Tuesday. They outshot the Senators 46-30 and dominated for long stretches but couldn't find a way to score a second goal against goaltender Craig Anderson.

Afterward, Crosby preached patience and persistence heading into Game 7.

"You've got to refocus," he said. "It's a big one so we've got to learn from this one. The last couple games I think we've really played on our toes and generated a lot, so we've just got to keep that in mind and make sure we do the same thing in Game 7."

This will be the seventh Game 7 of Crosby's NHL career; he is 4-2 in the first six. That includes a 2-1 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the conference final last year and a 2-0 victory against the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the second round this season.

Crosby set up the winning goal by forward Bryan Rust in Game 7 against the Capitals. His 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 17 games are tied with Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf for second in the Stanley Cup Playoffs behind Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin, who has 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists) in 18 games.

Malkin can make the Penguins go as much as Crosby. He won the Conn Smythe in 2009 when he and Crosby won the Stanley Cup for the first time, and was dominant in Game 6 against the Senators, scoring and peppering Anderson with a game-high seven shots on goal.

Video: OTT@PIT, Gm5: Crosby tips in Daley's shot for PPG

The Senators have defenseman Erik Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner who has entered the conversation for the world's best player while leading Ottawa this far. But with Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins have a 1-2 punch at center no team can match.

Despite missing time with two concussions -- the first at the start of the season and the second during the second round against the Capitals -- Crosby has been at the height of his powers this season. He won the Maurice Richard Trophy for the second time by leading the League with 44 goals and was tied for second in points (89) with Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane. He's a Hart Trophy finalist for sixth time.

Now he's trying to help the Penguins make history by becoming the first repeat Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998. The Penguins would be the first defending Stanley Cup champion to return to the Final since the Red Wings in 2009.

With the way things have been going for Crosby, who would bet against him getting them there?

"Sid's a guy that wants to win in the worst way, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to win," Sullivan said. "So there's no doubt in my mind he'll lead by example."

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