The Penguins have suffered an extraordinary 479 man-games lost due to injury this year. That number will no doubt exceed 500 before the 2013-14 season comes to a conclusion.
Yet, despite the enormous amount of injuries – including losses of key players Evgeni Malkin, Rob Scuderi, Paul Martin, Pascal Dupuis, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Beau Bennett, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang – Pittsburgh easily locked up a playoff spot and is on the precipice of claiming its first-ever Metropolitan Division title.
There have been several factors in the Penguins’ resilient success. But the greatest factor has been the play of their captain.
Sidney Crosby, 26, is widely regarded as the best player in the world. His dominant performance on the ice this season leaves no doubt that he is the Penguins – and arguably the NHL’s – most valuable player.
Crosby, who is on pace to play in all 82 games for Pittsburgh this season, is already the runaway winner of his second-career NHL scoring race. It isn’t even close.
Crosby has posted a league-best 100 points on 36 goals and 64 assists. The next closest player is Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf – whose 83 points are 17 behind Crosby.
“He’s 17 points ahead of the next guy. That’s pretty amazing,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “You can make a fair amount of money in this league getting 20 points, let alone 20 more points than the second most.”
Crosby reached the 100-point mark on the season with an assist in the Penguins’ 4-1 loss to Carolina Tuesday night. It is the fifth time in his NHL career that Crosby has hit the 100-point plateau.
“It’s a number, it’s nice,” Crosby said of reaching 100. “I don’t think you go into seasons thinking about that. It’s nice when you get the opportunity to do it.”
To underscore Crosby’s importance to the Penguins this season, note that Pittsburgh is 45-8-4 whenever Crosby scores a point and 3-15-1 when he is held scoreless. Also, the Penguins are 27-0-2 when Crosby records multiple points and 25-2-3 when he records a goal.
“There’s a reason he’s our leader and the best player in the world,” center Brandon Sutter said. “He’s been great. He’s been so consistent. It seems like every night he’s got a goal and an assist or a couple points. He’s been such a threat with the puck. He’s been great all year.”
Crosby has figured in on 100 of Pittsburgh’s 228 total goals this season – meaning he’s factored in on 44.1 percent of the Penguins’ offense this season. That’s the highest percentage in the NHL – the second highest is 37.6 percent for Edmonton’s Taylor Hall.
“Even when we haven’t played well as a group he’s found a way to produce,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “He’s so consistent. He’s had games where he just absolutely dominates the game and has the puck all the time.
“No matter what angle you look at, he’s our best player.”
And this offensive production has come with Crosby going head-to-head against every opposing team’s best defensive players. Crosby’s hasn’t gone more than two consecutive games without a point.
“It’s pretty easy for teams to get matchups against him,” Niskanen said. “He’s still found a way to produce.”
“He’s depended upon playing against other team’s good players and defensively in those situations for our team,” Bylsma said. “Some people would like to have a better matchup. I wouldn’t. That’s what we count on him to do for our team.”
But Crosby’s offensive dominance accounts for only half of his importance to the Penguins. He’s also one of their key defensive players – called upon in critical defensive situations, winning faceoffs and even killing penalties.
“The part (people don’t see) is the defensive responsibilities and faceoffs in his own end in key moments of the game,” longtime linemate Chris Kunitz said. “He’s out there on penalty kills. He’s really grown into a more mature version of himself, if that’s possible. He accepts all responsibility when our team doesn’t play well. And doesn’t get enough credit when our team is playing well and winning.”
But there is no doubt that the other players inside the Penguins’ locker room are aware of Crosby’s importance to the team.
“He’s a special player, fun to play with and fun to watch every night,” Sutter said. “He’s great in the locker room. The way he is and handles himself, there’s a reason why he’s the best player in the world.”
And no doubt the most valuable player in the world.
“We need him. The game deserves to have him,” Niskanen said. “It’s not easy to maintain as high of a level as he has being out for extended periods of time (with various injuries). That just shows the character and work ethic that he has. He’s so driven.
“When he does anything great anymore, I’m not really surprised.”