Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens' 4-0 win against the New York Islanders at Barclay Center.
* The Pens go as their captain goes. And Sidney Crosby was blazing tonight. Crosby posted a goal and 4 points against New York. But points aside, he looked energized and full of jump. Crosby was playing like this was a playoff game (and in some ways that is kind of true). The captain set the tone and the team followed.
Pittsburgh jumped out to a 3-0 lead thanks mostly to Crosby. On the club's first goal, Crosby made a great play in the defensive zone to strip Andrew Ladd of the puck to create a 2-on-1 chance. Crosby's perfect pass was buried by rookie Daniel Sprong. During a power play minutes later, Crosby caught a pass in his skates and was able to pivot and make a tape-to-tape pass to Evgeni Malkin for a power-play goal.
But it was Crosby's goal that was quintessential 87. He was skating circles around New York's John Tavares - a pretty darn good defender in his own right and an elite talent. Crosby circled, pivoted, reversed and then set up Sprong for a shot. The puck sailed wide and below the goal line. Crosby pounced immediately - players of his ilk always have a sense of where the puck will go and seem to be there to repossess. Crosby saw goalie Jaroslav Halak hadn't flushed to his post, so the captain threw the puck off of Halak's body and in. We've seen Crosby use that Mario Lemieux-eque play to perfection in the past. Only a handful of players have the awareness and hands to pull it off. Crosby is one of those players.
* Crosby's goal was clutch for many reasons. Pittsburgh had built a 2-0 lead and was peppering the Islanders net with shots during the second period, but couldn't get that third tally. No doubt the Pens were dominating. But if they had surrendered a goal and the game became a 2-1 affair, it would have been deflating to the Pittsburgh bench. The Pens needed that third goal as much for their own psyche as they did for the cushion on the scoreboard. And Crosby provided. It was the goal that decided the game.
* Crosby wasn't the only player on the squad that looked re-energized. Phil Kessel played with extra fire. Every time the puck was on his stick in the offensive zone he was looking to make a play. Kessel was outhustling everyone and created several scoring chances.
At one point in the second period Kessel did a few laps around the offensive zone as Islanders gave chase. He then made a sick pass to Jake Guentzel to set up an opportunity. He faked as if he was going to carry the puck around the back of the net, fooling Halak into abandoning his post. Kessel then dropped a reverse backhander to Guentzel, who had the entire open net but shot it into the body of Halak.
I've always felt that Kessel plays his best when he isn't on a line with Crosby or Malkin. I know that sounds crazy. But he tends to defer to those guys a little too much. When he's on a line where he is the star - like the old HBK Line or tonight while playing with Guentzel and Conor Sheary - Kessel tends to elevate his play. He feels the pressure to be the offensive spark and lifts his game. It's why he was able to produce so many goals and points in Toronto despite being the only legit offensive threat for years. When Kessel feels he needs to carry his line, he steps up and does just that.
* I'd be remiss to not note the play of Sprong - Crosby's linemate for the evening. Enough has been written about Sprong and his nasty release. There's a reason he ranked 2nd in the AHL with 18 goals at the time of his recall. Sprong has the smarts and skill to play with Crosby. He perfectly read a turnover for a Pittsburgh 2-on-1, a play he would finish with his first goal of the season. Sprong put his hands on display again late in the third period when he carried a puck on net and went top corner for his second goal of the game.
Crosby (4), Sprong (3) and fellow linemate Dominik Simon (2) combined for 9 points. Sprong finished the night with 2 goals, 3 points and a team-best 6 shots. Keep shooting Daniel.
* Much deserved shoutout to the Pens' penalty kill unit - or the Jacques Squad. Late in the second period the unit was forced to kill 1:16 minutes worth of a 5-on-3 advantage for New York. A lot of credit belongs to Tom Kuhnhackl, Riley Sheahan and Ian Cole on that successful effort.
Since Thanksgiving the PK has gone 54 for 59 (91.5%).
Even Kessel, who came out of the box on the first expired penalty, helped the cause. You don't see Kessel killing penalties every day. And he got the job done.
* Lastly, kudos to goalie Tristan Jarry. He turned aside all 31 shots to post his 2nd career shutout. He played his best in the third period as the Islanders made an all-out charge for some goals.