It’s amazing how quickly things can change.
It was only a few months ago that the Pens were desperately trying to finish among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference and earn a playoff berth. And during periods of the season, including one point when the team sat 12th overall in the standings, things sometimes felt bleak.
But a new coach, a new cast and a new attitude has led to a remarkable turnaround that has the Pens now battling for second place in the Metro Division and home-ice advantage to start the postseason.
Consider the following nuggets on the Pens…
-6-game winning streak
-Won 10 of the last 13
-Most wins (8) and points (16) than any NHL team in the month of March
-Are 14-3-1 in last 18 against Metro
-Are 7-1 on 9-game division stretch
The Pens are the hottest team in the National Hockey League right now. And it’s no coincidence that the team’s success has coincided with the success of its leader.
“(Sidney Crosby is) our captain on the ice and off the ice,” linemate Patric Hornqvist said. “He’s playing his best hockey right now. He almost has two points a game. He’s been really good. That’s exactly what we need. Our best players have to be our best players. That’s what he’s done lately.”
Crosby has quietly climbed into third place in the NHL scoring race with 31 goals, 45 assists and 76 points in 71 games.
Consider his play of late…
-Active 12-game point streak (6G-14A-20PTS)
-10-game point streak against Metro Division (4G-11A-15PTS)
-Only NHL player with 2 scoring streaks of 10 games or more this season
“In general as a team we are just playing well,” a humble Crosby said. “Individually that stuff takes care of itself.”
The Pens’ resurgence has been remarkable. But it’s all been led by the man wearing the “C” crest on his chest.
“It’s pretty easy to follow a guy like that,” 39-year-old Matt Cullen said. “He’s playing so well every night, creating so much offense, playing well at both ends of the ice, battling, skating. Sid’s definitely led the way.”
Crosby has flourished under Sullivan. Since Dec. 12 (the day Sullivan took over), Crosby has 25 goals and 57 points in 43 games, which is the most by any player in the NHL. If Crosby had played a full season under Sullivan, he would be leading Chicago’s Patrick Kane in the NHL scoring race.
“When he’s on his game, which he’s been ever since I got here, we’re a different team,” forward Carl Hagelin said. “We’re a team that other teams are scare of. When he gets going he creates something out of nothing. He’s always a threat out there and works hard defensively too. He’s not easy to play against. That’s what made him so good.”
While his offensive production is through the roof, Crosby’s defensive play has gone under the radar. After all, he is constantly matched up against opposing team’s best players and often has to defend against them.
“He comes low and moves so fast in the neutral zone sometimes you forget that he’s down there battling and has to get back up the ice,” forward Chris Kunitz said. “Most of the time he’s leading the rush.”
Sullivan echoed that sentiment.
“(Crosby has) been the leader of this group at both ends of the rink,” Sullivan said. “His point production speaks for itself, what flies under the radar is his complete play.
“I think Sid is playing at both ends of the rink for us. Sometimes he goes against the other team’s top line and we go power vs. power. He’s every bit as good in our end as he is in the offensive side of the rink.”
Crosby more so than anyone has been responsible for Pittsburgh’s success. He’s the biggest reason the team has continued to thrive without superstar Evgeni Malkin, who is out 6-8 weeks with an upper-body injury. The Pens haven’t missed a beat, going 5-0 in that stretch, including dominant wins against division rivals Philadelphia and Washington on back-to-back days.
“He’ll put the team on his shoulders and score a goal that we sorely need,” Kunitz said. “We’ll be down by two goals, he’ll bust through the neutral zone with the puck and do one of those all-inspiring goals that picks up the whole bench. We become fans sometimes just sitting on the bench because of the way that he works and the skills that he has.”
The NHL’s Hart Memorial Trophy is awarded to the “player judged most valuable to his team.” Although Kane appeared to be the front runner all season long, other players have started to enter the conversation. Crosby, who has won the award twice in his career, is one of those players.
Outlets from USA Today, Yahoo Sports, Bleacher Report and more are starting to debate the merits of Crosby’s season and his value to the Pens. No other player has done more to help turn around his team’s fortunes than No. 87.
“He’s the driving force of everything,” Kunitz said. “He’s taken on the responsibility when ‘Geno’s’ been out. Throughout the year he matches up against the other team’s top line. It doesn’t really matter for him to go out and play in his own end. When he’s on the streak and runs he’s on it drives our team.”