Each Friday throughout the season Kevin Weekes will be bringing you his Friday Four. He will be blogging about four players, teams, plays, or trends that have caught his eye.
Crosby is back to his old ways. The Pittsburgh Penguins' center is possessing the puck himself. He's shooting the puck, going to the middle of the ice, going to the net. Being back on a line with Chris Kunitz has helped him, because he is healthy enough and playing with enough pace. There's a reason why Kunitz has been a mainstay playing with Crosby over the years.
Crosby had a seven-game goal streak and 11-game point streak end in a 3-0 loss to the New York Rangers on Wednesday, but has still 18 goals and 16 assists in 22 games.
The Penguins' defense has also stepped up its offensive game, which is exactly what general manager Jim Rutherford told me they wanted to do when they made the coaching change. You look at the pace Kris Letang is on since he returned from injury; he's been playing like a man possessed (eight goals and 24 points in 16 games). Olli Maatta is healthy and playing well, and Trevor Daley has been a nice fit since he was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks. At any given time, any of those three guys can step up; that certainly helps Crosby, but more important helps the Penguins.
Crosby has been on an amazing tear. My colleague Mike Rupp said earlier in the year on NHL Network when Crosby was underperforming that he would be back, and Rupp was right.
Four players scored their 20th goals of the season on Thursday; John Tavares (New York Islanders), Wayne Simmonds (Philadelphia Flyers), Brandon Saad (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins).
Video: LAK@NYI: Tavares picks the top corner to pad the lead
For all of them, it's been very different. Tavares has found his game again (four goals in six games). Simmonds, who has a chance to get 30 goals this season, is the second-best net-front scorer in the League next to Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks; he has eight goals in eight games. Saad became an All-Star this season, but it's been a bittersweet one for him, going from the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks to the Blue Jackets, who have struggled. But he earned his contract and he is performing well. Bergeron is as dependable as ever. Look at how he scored No. 20 on Thursday; he did a great job in the defensive zone before scoring.
Just as a side note from Bergeron: His teammate, Brad Marchand, has been really good. Aside from the 9-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday in which everyone, maybe even including the organist at TD Garden, was off, you look at how he's played; he has a goal in five straight games and in 10 of 11 games.
It's similar to the run J.T. Miller and Derick Brassard have been on with the Rangers. Miller has become the player the Rangers expected a lot from based on his combination of speed and skill. He has nine goals in 11 games, but what I like is that I'm seeing more intensity from him. You can see it after some of these goals he's scored. You don't always feel your best and you aren't always 100 percent, but when you incorporate that into the skill and your talent, it's amazing what it can do. Brassard has grown into the No. 1 center role and has had a steady point progression in the past few seasons. He leads the Rangers in goals (18) and points (40), and has taken his game to a new level.
For all those West Coasters out there, keep an eye on the ever-changing Pacific Division. The San Jose Sharks went into Chicago on Tuesday and shut out the Blackhawks 2-0, which is a great sign for them. It also speaks to how good they have been on the road (18-8-2). The Sharks just finished a four-game road trip and have a five-game trip that starts next week.
The Los Angeles Kings are two games into a tough seven-game road trip. The Kings have a lead in the division, but the Anaheim Ducks are playing better (they're 1-1-1 on a seven-game trip of their own), and the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes are hanging around. It should make for an exciting race to the Stanley Cup Playoffs during the final two months.
Hartley handling the Calgary Flames
Bob Hartley did a great job handling the Sean Monahan-Johnny Gaudreau-Lance Bouma situation. The three were late for practice on Monday and were benched for the game Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Every one of us has made mistakes; a lot of the guys in the League have made mistakes over the years. I think for Hartley to bench them for one game and put it behind him tells me a lot about him as a coach.
Some coaches wouldn't have handled it that well, with that level of protection around the players while still holding them accountable. There are lots of things Hartley and the coaches could have said to the media about these young players, but they didn't. As a player, that's when you know the organization backs you. That's not always the case, and it has to feel good for Gaudreau, Monahan and Bouma; the first two of whom are young pillars of this franchise. They know they made a mistake. They are accountable for their actions.
It's somewhat similar to the way Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz handled Alex Ovechkin, when he was late to practice in October and Trotz benched him for that game only. Trotz maintained credibility in the locker room and the respect of the player.