In two months, the Pittsburgh Penguins have embarked on the most dramatic turnaround in franchise history. The team climbed out of the abyss and into the heart of the postseason picture.
There are many items that can be attributed to the team’s recent success: new interim head coach Dan Bylsma, a new attitude and aggressive philosophy, the return of Sergei Gonchar, the additions of Chris Kunitz
and Bill Guerin, etc.
While all those factors have contributed to the team’s success, they’ve also gotten clutch performances from their leader. Captain Sidney Crosby
has been an integral part of the team’s recent success and has come through for the time in critical situations.
“At this time of year every one raises their game,” he said. “The team is playing well so that helps. This is the time of year that it’s fun to be in games and you try to give a little more of yourself.”
I can’t say enough about how well he’s been playing and what he does on the ice. He makes everybody around him a better player. It’s something he brings out in his linemates. He wants you to be better. He wants you to strive for perfection. That’s something you try to do every shift you’re out there. - Chris Kunitz
“I can’t say enough about how well he’s been playing and what he does on the ice,” linemate Kunitz said. “He makes everybody around him a better player. It’s something he brings out in his linemates. He wants you to be better. He wants you to strive for perfection. That’s something you try to do every shift you’re out there.”
In Pittsburgh’s Saturday afternoon contest against the New York Rangers, Crosby broke a 3-3 tie in the third period with the game-winning score in a pivotal game between two divisional rivals battling for a playoff spot.
Crosby, who is third in the NHL in scoring with 97 points (29G-68A), blew through Rangers defensemen Wade Redden and Derek Morris before wristing a shot far side on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for the score.
“There are certain games and certain circumstances that you can look to Sid and Geno (Evgeni Malkin
) and Sergei Gonchar to deliver,” Bylsma said. “(Crosby’s goal) was a clutch play by a guy that’s done it before. It was a big play, a big goal for us and a big win.”
“I was trying to go glove side,” Crosby said. “I think he got a piece of it but I was able to get it in.”
That goal is a microcosm of how Crosby has performed over the past month. He’s on an 11-game scoring streak with six goals and 12 assists for 18 points since returning from a groin injury in early March. The Penguins, not coincidentally, have gone 8-1-2 in that span.
“When he’s healthy it’s tough to stop him and he’s playing well,” Gonchar said. “After that injury it seems like he’s come back refocused and he brought his game to another level.”
“Sid (has) played very well,” Malkin said. “He helped the team. He scored (a point) every game on a big stage. He played very well.”
During his scoring surge Crosby, who has a point in his last 15 games, has delivered when the Penguins have needed him the most. Just consider some of his performances over that span: March 5 at Florida
: It was a crucial battle with a team that was ahead of Pittsburgh in the standings at the time. The first 37 minutes was tight checking with neither team giving ground. The Panthers scored the game’s first goal at the 17:49 mark of the second period.
The Penguins responded just 24 seconds later when Crosby, playing in his first game back from the groin injury that forced him out of the previous four contests, blew through the Florida defense and snapped a shot into the goal to tie the game. Pittsburgh went on to win the game, 4-1.
“That was a huge answer,” Bylsma said after the game about Crosby’s goal. “They got the first goal and it could have been deflating but the captain answers with a goal. The phone was ringing and that was a big answer.”March 8 at Washington
: In a matchup full of stars, it was Crosby who shined the brightest. He scored a goal and added an assist but saved his best for the end.
With both teams tied at 3-3, the game went to a shootout. The first four shooters failed to score, leaving Crosby and Alex Ovechkin to decide the fate of the game. Crosby faked a backhand shot before burying the puck near side past Jose Theodore. Ovechkin was stoned on his attempt the Penguins prevailed, 4-3. March 10 vs. Florida
: Crosby set up the game’s first goal but Pittsburgh found itself trailing 3-1 in the third period. Crosby capped the Penguins’ rally by re-directing a shot into the net for the tying goal. Pittsburgh prevailed in a shootout, 4-3.March 12 at Columbus
: The Penguins found themselves trailing the Blue Jackets 3-0 with less than nine minutes left in the third period. But Pittsburgh rallied, once again, for three goals in a 3:25-minute span to tie the game. Crosby assisted on the Penguins’ first and third goal. Though the Penguins fell in the shootout, 4-3, they picked up an important point in the standings. March 15 vs. Boston
: Crosby tallied three assists for the Penguins as Pittsburgh defeated, 6-4, the Bruins - the top-ranked team in the East.March 20 vs. Los Angeles
: Crosby opened the game’s scoring by picking off a pass in the Kings zone and then whipping a tough-angled backhand shot into the net. Then he made a beautiful pass to Malkin for the game-winning goal as Pittsburgh cruised to a 4-1 victory. March 25 vs. Calgary
: Crosby assisted on the game-winning goal in Pittsburgh’s 2-0 win over the Flames. Malkin unleashed a slap shot on goal. The rebound slid below the goal line to the side of the net where Crosby was positioned. He kicked the puck up to his stick and then hit Kris Letang
, sneaking in the backdoor, for the tally.
Crosby already plays at a higher level than most players in the NHL. However, Crosby appears to have elevated his play – if such a thing is cosmically possible – during the past month and the Penguins have been the major beneficiary.
“He elevates his game in pressure situations that most guys try to shy away from or keep things simple,” Kunitz said. “He definitely picked his game up. That’s just a special ability that he has. At any moment that he’s on the ice he can use that extra gear that he’s got to break through the defensemen, get through the blue line quickly and get a scoring chance and score a big goal.”
Gonchar isn’t surprised that Crosby has elevated his play in the critical stretch run for the team. In fact, the veteran blueliner expected it.
As bad as this sounds you kind of get used to it. He’s spoiled us with his play and you kind of expect it out of him. He’s a great player and does something special every night. - Sergei Gonchar
“He always does,” Gonchar said. “As bad as this sounds you kind of get used to it. He’s spoiled us with his play and you kind of expect it out of him. He’s a great player and does something special every night.”
It has been a challenging year for Crosby and the Penguins. The team suffered numerous injuries to key players and fell in the standings to 10th place. But during those difficult stretches in the season, Crosby kept his team together.
“It’s been tough; the whole year we’ve faced adversity with all our injuries and the expectations are always high,” Crosby said. “That’s been something that’s new and it’s a learning experience. We’re all learning.
“It’s your attitude. Things get tougher. You have to find ways to be motivated and find ways to be successful. It’s really the attitude of the team. Guys have kept their head up and dug down when we needed to.”
Crosby warned that the team cannot rest on its laurels as the postseason is not a lock. The Penguins are currently in the sixth spot in the East with a five-point cushion. But Crosby is well aware of the fleeting success of the sport of hockey.
“We’re still battling,” Crosby said. “The season is not over. It’s been a battle from the start of the season to now. That’s a hockey season. A lot of things happen and it’s how you handle it.”
Bylsma acknowledged that sometimes Crosby’s performance can be taken for granted, but the Penguins coach needs his team leader to keep playing at his current level.
“When I look at the standings there is no time to be spoiled,” Bylsma said. “We’re still desperate and need to be. That was a big game (against the Rangers) and a big goal but we’ll close the page and go to the next one. We have a big game coming up.”