In Pittsburgh’s 4-2 win over Carolina back on March 17, Sidney Crosby
made a gorgeous defensive play late in the second period.
The Penguins captain was the only player back as the quick, skilled Hurricanes went down the ice on a 2-on-1 rush. As he sized up the play, Crosby made the decision to drop down and executed a textbook sliding block that took him and the puck into the corner boards.
With that, Crosby prevented both a scoring chance on Matt Murray and his fellow netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who was watching from the bench, from giving him any grief.
“I sit next to ‘Flower’ on the plane, so I didn’t want the guy to go for a back door tap-in and then have to hear why I didn’t block the pass,” Crosby laughed. “That was more of the pressure I was feeling. It worked out.”
That play – which kept Carolina from taking a 3-1 lead into the intermission – was a crucial one in the game. But Crosby’s prevention of that goal was somewhat overshadowed by the two he scored down at the other end, which extended his point streak to 10 games at the time.
“That was some of the most fun I had this year,” Crosby admitted with a smile. “Score some goals and that’s fun, but having to play a 2-on-1 and do that, that’s fun when it goes well. You practice it sometimes just joking around, but at the same time there is kind of a way of doing it. Try to make sure I take the pass away.”
While that night in particular is one that stands out, the last couple of seasons Crosby has become just as dominant in his own end as he is at the other – which is saying a lot considering he’s arguably the best player in the game and his career points-per-game average ranks in the NHL’s top-five all-time.
Crosby, 28, has recovered from a slow start production-wise this season and currently ranks 3rd in league scoring with 84 points (35G-49A) in 79 games. He has points in 19 of 20 games dating back to Feb. 29. Since that time, he leads the NHL with 10 goals and 18 assists.
“He's every bit as good in our end as he is in the offensive side of the rink,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think because he's such a dynamic player offensively, no one really talks about his play away from the puck."
He’s been so impressive in that regard that Scotty Bowman – the winningest head coach in NHL history – thinks Crosby deserves to be in the conversation for the Selke Trophy, which is awarded annually to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.
“He would be a good candidate,” said Bowman, who captured one of his record nine Stanley Cups in 1992 with Pittsburgh. “The way the team is playing with Mike Sullivan, the team is playing two-way hockey and he’s a big part of it.”
Bowman, who won a total of 14 Stanley Cups, certainly knows what it takes to get the Selke Trophy as he’s coached a number of former winners. In fact, the inaugural recipient, Bob Gainey – who earned it the first four years it was given – played under Bowman with the Montreal Canadiens those first two years.
Other players who won the award while playing for Bowman were Craig Ramsay in Buffalo and in Detroit, Sergei Federov and Steve Yzerman – who Crosby idolized growing up.
After six-straight 100-point seasons with the Red Wings, Bowman famously asked his captain to buy into being more of a two-way player to help the team win. Bowman told Yzerman his numbers would go down, but that hopefully the team would do better.
And while Yzerman’s stats did suffer at first, eventually he figured out how to be both a great offensive and defensive player. As a result, the Wings won three Stanley Cups. Today, Bowman sees parallels between the two men.
“When a guy like that comes up to a team and there’s a lot of responsibility, everything falls on their shoulders and I think that they feel if they’re not scoring at will, they’re not doing their job,” Bowman said.
“Those kinds of players, it’s not easy. The focus goes on them, especially if you put up big numbers at the beginning of your career and everybody expects the same thing. It’s a much different game than when (Crosby) started 10 years ago. It wasn’t as difficult to get points as it is now. The fact that he’s able to be a two-way player, it’s two-fold. It takes away from your offense a little bit, but it also gives a better indication for the team.”
That’s a lesson it took Crosby a while to learn, but one he truly understands now.
“Over time, you play and you understand that playing good defensively doesn’t hurt your offensive game – it helps it,” Crosby said. “It’s something where you’re able to get out of your own end quicker, you’re not on your heels, you’re not wasting energy in the defensive zone and you’re able to play offense.
“The offensive part of the game is the most fun, by far. But I think understanding that with that and having that fun depends on how well you play defensively. I think the biggest thing is just the understanding of the importance of playing good defensively and what that takes. It can’t be 70 percent of the time. It’s got to be every night. And it goes a long way.”
Another player Crosby looks up to in that regard is another Hall of Famer, Peter Forsberg.
“He played a really tough game and I think anyone who played against him knew you were going to have to compete that night,” Crosby explained. “It didn’t necessarily mean he was a defensive specialist. I think he knew how to defend and play well defensively, but offensively, you knew you were going to have to compete and play hard against him.
"I think that’s someone I really enjoyed watching. I played against him a little bit and got to understand that pretty quickly. Those kind of experiences help you for sure.”
When the Selke Trophy was first given out, Bowman said it was awarded to those defensive specialists. Now, it’s given to more of an all-around player.
“I think with the trophy now, you’ve got to be a two-way player,” Bowman said. “If you’re a centerman, you’ve got to be probably pretty proficient on faceoffs, stuff like that.”
For Crosby, that’s where it all starts.
“I think the more you can win those faceoffs in the defensive zone and get out of trouble quick, it goes a long way,” said Crosby, who ranks second in the league behind Boston’s Patrice Bergeron in faceoffs taken (1,881).
But if the Pens do lose those draws or are forced to retrieve the puck out of their own end, Crosby said it’s all about the defensive details – namely, stopping and starting.
“D are under pressure all the time so the center’s got to be there to help out,” he said. “If you can be an option for them but just basically being in support of the puck at all times, that’s really what you’re trying to do. And when you get it, just make sure you’re making a smart play to get out of trouble.
“But stopping and starting, I think as a player who’s trying to create offense, a lot of times you’re always wanting to go forward; you’re always wanting to go on offense. So the more you can stop and help guys out and then transition the better off you are.”
His first goal against Carolina was a perfect example of that. Crosby went all the way down below his own goal line before picking the puck up on the boards and skating the length of the ice. He wiggled through a check, cut to the net and tucked the puck around goaltender Eddie Lack.
The Pens were without Evgeni Malkin in that game, and they have been for a while now. He’s missed the last 12 games with an upper-body injury, which means the responsibility of shutting down the opponent’s top players has fallen even more on Crosby.
“He’s drawing the best players on the other teams, especially because lately, they haven’t had Malkin,” Bowman said. “I think a lot of teams try to play their top players against each other now. His numbers are pretty respectful from that point of view.”
It’s something Sullivan did anyway, which means that in addition to fighting through guys resorting to any means necessary to try and slow Crosby down – both legal and not – he’s trying to limit their guys as well while still putting numbers on the board. It’s certainly never an easy night for the captain.
“Some nights it’s funny, you’re joking with ‘Geno’ or Phil (Kessel) like, who’s going to get who tonight? Who’s going to have the big job tonight,” Crosby laughed. “I think with Mike, he’s giving us a lot of responsibility to play against other team’s top line and you have to accept that and make sure you do a good job.
"At the end of the day, how you play defense and how you can defend will allow you to hopefully be at the right side of things at the end of the night.”
And so far, it has.