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Leading the way

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

PITTSBURGH  - There have been times during this playoff year that the Pittsburgh Penguins have looked tired.

Times when the defending Stanley Cup champs appeared to be taking on water, listing.

They allowed Washington to crawl back into their second-round series before turning back the Presidents' Trophy winners in Game 7.

They allowed Ottawa to hang around far longer than the Senators had a right to before finding a way to advance to a second straight Stanley Cup Final with a double-overtime win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

And as recently as Monday in Nashville as the Predators thumped the Pens 4-1 to even the Stanley Cup Final at two games apiece it was fair to ask; are the Penguins out of gas?

No shame if it was so.

There's a reason no team has won back-to -back Stanley Cups since Detroit in 1997 and 1998.

It takes a Herculean effort to win just one, let alone duplicating the task.

But facing a crucial fifth game at home Thursday night and needing to prove not just to the world but more importantly themselves that they weren't done after being outscored 9-2 in Nashville, the Penguins announced loudly that they are anything but done.

The defending champs chased Game 3 and 4 star Pekka Rinne from the Nashville goal with three first-period goals en route to a 6-0 humbling of the Predators.

They now have a chance to rewrite history with a win in Game 6 in Nashville Sunday.

Anyone want to take a wild guess who proved to be the catalyst to such a statement?

Hint: he wears #87.

We've spent a lot of time over the last decade watching Sidney Crosby deliver the goods whether it's been in playoffs like these or in winning back-to-back Olympic gold medals or a World Cup of Hockey championship.

Thursday night he was as good as we've seen him.

Literally from the moment the puck dropped the Pittsburgh captain was a machine.

He made a slick inside out move in the opening minute driving the net and hitting the post, while drawing a penalty by Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis. Moments later Crosby set up Justin Schultz for the game's first goal.

He added two more assists in the second period and now has 27 points this spring, one behind teammate Evgeni Malkin for the playoff lead.

"We had a great start," Crosby said. "We wanted to make sure we played on our toes and I thought we did a good job of that. We followed the first with a good second and that's how we need to play."

He also got into a heated dust-up with Predators defenseman P.K. Subban, a teammate of Crosby's on the 2014 Canadian Olympic team that saw Crosby mash Subban's head into the ice.

After the game Crosby said Subban had put him in "some kind of UFC hold" and he was just trying to extricate himself.

Crosby also hurled a water bottle on the ice during play, although no penalty was called and he later said it was an accident.

"He started last game in Nashville, he took it to a whole different level which is a level we're accustomed to seeing," former Dallas Stars defenseman Trevor Daley said.

"When the best player in the world gets going like he's been going, you can't help but just to try and follow in his path," he said.

There are lots of talented players in the National Hockey League. But this is something other.

"I just think he has such a drive to be the best," said head coach Mike Sullivan. "He's willing to do what it takes."

He doesn't just show up, but works to control all that is within his ability to control.

Diet, practice habits, off-ice habits.

"He sets such an example for the rest of the group on how to control what you can, give you every chance to be successful," the coach said. "What separates him is his drive."

This series isn't over. Not the way the Predators play at home.

But Thursday's win and what is possible on Sunday brings into focus the enormity of what the Penguins are on the verge of accomplishing.

Without star defenseman Kris Letang for the entire playoffs and with center Nick Bonino out of the lineup the last couple of games, the Penguins simply keep finding ways.

That it's been Crosby leading the way is perhaps the least surprising part of the whole unlikely equation.

He's on the cusp of completing one of the most incredible years of his already Hall of Fame life.

A year ago, he won a second Stanley Cup and earned playoff MVP honors before leading Canada to a win in the World Cup of Hockey, also earning MVP honors there. He is a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP and as early as Sunday could have a third ring to add to his resume and will be in the mix as playoff MVP once again.

His greatness has become almost commonplace.

Ho Hum. Yes, Crosby is great. That's news?

But on a night like Thursday walking a tightrope between taking a defiant step toward a rare back-to-back championship or facing the reality that maybe you are too tired to finish the race, it was Crosby who tilted the scales once again in the Penguins' favor.

It was a good reminder that commonplace or not, we should take the time to acknowledge and appreciate such rare gifts.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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