PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby isn't ready to get ahead of himself in this Eastern Conference Semifinal.
The Pittsburgh Penguins captain has heard all the chatter about how his team has found its legs in this series after the 7-3 thrashing they delivered to the Ottawa Senators in Game 4 Wednesday.
He's seen the reports of Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson delivering what many believed was a concession speech of sorts in the emotional aftermath of that Game 4 in Ottawa.
He senses the subtle shift in the tone of the questions he received Friday as the team prepared for Game 5 at Consol Energy Center (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS), as reporters began focusing as much on big-picture, look-ahead stories as much as the here and now.
But Crosby is not buying into it, not with another win needed to put away an Ottawa team that has earned a reputation for being impossible to break.
"It's always the toughest one," Crosby said of earning the fourth win of a series. "You are playing a desperate hockey team and they are going to bring their best. That desperation is something we have to have as well, and we have to find a way to make sure we are desperate to close it out."
But what about that offensive explosion in Game 4, which featured six goals in the final 40 minutes and saw Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson pulled for the second time in the series? What about an offense that is averaging more than four goals per game through the first 10 games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Aren't those signs that the end of this series is in sight?
"In the playoffs, you usually don't expect that," Crosby said of the offensive fireworks in Game 4. "I think when you look at your team or you look at offense, you are more looking at the depth of our team. To be able to do that is great, but it doesn't happen too often. I don't think we expect that every period. But we have guys in here who are capable of scoring, that's for sure."
Still, Crosby and the Penguins have to look back no further than Game 3, when they tried to nurse a 1-0 lead to the finish line and didn't make it, allowing a shorthanded goal in the final minute of regulation and the winner in double-overtime.
"It's a situation right now where we feel like we have three wins, but we don't necessarily feel they've come easy," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "We played our best road game and lost in Game 3. I think our team knows how important it is to try to get that fourth win. We have one game right in front of us."
And Crosby is too intense a student of the game to take that opportunity for granted.
He admitted Friday that he spent part of his off-day Thursday watching playoff hockey, as games in the other three series were played. He saw a down-and-out New York Rangers team refuse to wilt and eventually beat Boston in overtime of Game 4 to stay alive. He also saw a Detroit Red Wings team expected to be cannon fodder for the Presidents' Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks play a perfect defensive game and take a stunning 3-1 lead in that best-of-7 series.
"I think you realize year after year that playoffs are tough and that there are no guarantees, no gimmes, and you have to make sure you are at your best -- and even when you are at your best, it doesn't guarantee anything," Crosby said. "I think the other series are good examples of that -- the Rangers find a way to hang in there, win in overtime. They are not rolling over and quitting. I think you can always take things from other series, but I think the thing that seems to be common every year is there is no real guideline to how it goes. Anything can happen."
And as Crosby said, the best answer to the vagaries of the playoffs is to put your best foot forward each night.
Crosby certainly is leading by example in that endeavor since joining the fray in Game 2 of the first round after returning from a broken jaw, an injury that still is not fully healed and requires added protection during games and practices.
In nine games, Crosby has 14 points, good for a second-place tie with teammate Evgeni Malkin on the postseason scoring list. He is playing close to 22 minutes a game, has been a vital cog on the power play and is the team's primary faceoff man, taking 216 draws so far this postseason. Only three players have taken more, and each has appeared in more games.
Crosby's singular focus since his return has not gone unnoticed.
"He's playing good hockey for us," Bylsma said Friday. "He's in a lot of big situations for us."
Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Managing Editor