Sidney Crosby (Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Pittsburgh Penguins are leading the Stanley Cup final 2-0 because they've been getting outstanding contributions from all their players, but largely because Sidney Crosby has been the best player on either team.
PITTSBURGH – Perhaps it’s time to add soothsayer to Sidney Crosby’s considerably long list of talents. Or not. Clutch player really works, too. And while it wasn’t Babe Ruth pointing to the bleachers before hitting a home run or Mark Messier and his guarantee that the New York Rangers would win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final in 1994, then cementing the win with a hat trick, it was pretty darn impressive, nonetheless.
According to Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, Crosby called the play that led to the Penguins overtime goal in Game 2 seconds before it happened. “He said he was going to win (the faceoff) to me, that’s it,” Letang said. “He was going to win it to me and I had to find Shearsie (Conor Sheary). You know what? He’s an elite player and he believes in himself so that doesn’t surprise me.”
Of course Crosby believes in himself. But he’d rather chew on a mouthful of old cheese than actually spit those words out. Prior to this series, Joe Thornton repeated that he’s a great player. And he is. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of bravado and self-confidence, but you’re never going to find Crosby talking like that.
“I call 25 faceoffs a game,” Crosby said. “So I got 24 wrong tonight.”
So he’s a stiff. A really lucky one, evidently. (Actually, he only took 24 faceoffs on the night, so he couldn't have been wrong that many times.) Crosby absolutely devoured San Jose’s centers in the faceoff circle and picked Joel Ward clean on the game winner. Logan Couture, who was almost as unsuccessful as Joe Pavelski in the faceoff dot all game, intimated that Crosby is a cheater when it comes to taking faceoffs.
“They don’t seem to kick him out for some reason,” Couture said, “probably because of who he is.”
If Crosby is indeed a faceoff cheat, it’s another thing he’s managed to master over the course of his career. When he broke into the league, he won only 45.5 percent of his faceoffs and was only slightly better in his second year. But since then, there hasn’t been a season when his winning percentage hasn’t dipped below 50. The Penguins held an optional practice Tuesday in which just six players took part. One of them was Crosby. And at the end of the workout, there he was, working on his faceoffs against Eric Fehr. And the next night, he tears the Sharks apart by winning 17 faceoffs and losing just seven.
“It doesn’t surprise me because I think that’s Sid,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “His work ethic is unmatched. He has an insatiable appetite to get better and be the best. I’ve said it on a number of occasions. He’s not as good as he is by accident. He works extremely hard at it. He prides himself in the details of his game, like faceoffs. Because of that, I don’t think it surprises any one of us that he’s able to dominate in the faceoff circle or in some of the other aspects of his game.”
In this particular series, he’s dominating in all aspects and while stories such as Phil Kessel and Matt Murray have emerged as the definitive feel-goods, Crosby is further distancing himself from the rest of the pack for the Conn Smythe Trophy. It’s not even close right now. And if Crosby keeps it up, he’ll be adding the playoff MVP bauble to his trophy case. As far as the Penguins are concerned, they’ve been able to exploit the matchups and impose their speed on the game, but that speed was far less a factor in Game 2 than it was in Game 1. If you’re looking for a bigger reason why the Sharks are down two heading home, you can point to the fact that their star players have been almost invisible and they’ve handled the puck at times as though it was a live hand grenade. The way they’ve played, they should ironically feel good about themselves for playing this badly and losing both games by only a goal.
Sheary, who propelled the Penguins to 4-1 in overtime in the playoffs, displayed some kind of shot on that overtime goal. It was a play that he likely wouldn’t have made when he first got here and was put on Crosby’s line. After all, when you’re a young guy trying to make a positive impression, you’re usually looking to get the rock back to Crosby. But the fact that Sheary unleashed that shot is a testament to how well Sullivan has handled and brought along the young players and how well they’ve responded.
“My experience of being around this group is when a new player comes to our team, young or old for that matter, I think there's a little bit of a ‘wow’ factor because some of the players we have. Everybody has so much respect for Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin and Letang and those guys. Over time I think that wears off. I think that’s happened with Conor. I also think, you know, Sid and some of our older guys, when they spend time with these guys, they’ve really taken the young players under their wing. They’ve done a tremendous job just as far as being mentors for them, making them feel comfortable.”
It’s easy to feel comfortable and good about yourself when you’re winning the way the Penguins are. And that feeling will increase a hundredfold if the Penguins can win two more games this season.