It’s hardly a coincidence.
Crosby scored three straight goals for his first natural hat trick in more than five years, and the Penguins opened the second half of the season with a rollicking 6-5 win over the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night.
The two-time NHL MVP boosted his goal total to 20 and has scored in each of Pittsburgh’s last eight home games. The Penguins have won four straight and lost just once in regulation since Jan. 6.
Suddenly, Pittsburgh’s muddled start feels like a long time ago. Crosby has 11 goals since Jan. 1, most in the NHL.
“There are nights where you feel like you have a ton of chances and it doesn’t go in and to get them in bunches is nice, especially a game like this where it’s high scoring and you pretty much know that the last goal is going to win it,” Crosby said.
Marc-Andre Fleury settled down after a shaky start and finished with 18 saves.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mark Stone, Cody Ceci, Chris Wideman and Dave Dziurzynski scored for the Senators. Craig Anderson made 38 stops while spending most of the night dealing with a swarm of black jerseys directly in front of him.
“Anderson was excellent tonight,” Ottawa coach Dave Cameron said. “We hung him out to dry.”
The Penguins headed into the All-Star break stressing the need to maintain the intensity they showed during a 6-2-3 January surge that moved them back into playoff position. The run was fueled by a streaking Crosby, who has taken to heart new coach Mike Sullivan’s advice to get to the front of the net.
Crosby tied for the NHL lead with eight goals in January and wasted little time getting back to work following an All-Star snub, one he likely deserved after a sluggish opening three months of the season. His three scores against the Senators came from close range, including a pair from right on the doorstep.
“I think he’s doing the same things; he’s going to the right areas and the puck is going in,” Kunitz said. “The confidence thing obviously for everybody on the ice when he gets going, gets everybody going.”
The hat trick was the ninth of Crosby’s career and first since Oct. 12, 2013, against Tampa Bay. It was his first natural hat trick since doing it against the Atlanta Thrashers on Dec. 2, 2010.
Pittsburgh dominated the Senators for long stretches, taking a 2-0 lead on goals by Matt Cullen and Letang before Ottawa recorded its first shot, but a shaky performance by the typically solid Fleury allowed the Senators to get back in it.
Ottawa ripped off three straight goals to jump in front 4-3, including a pair in a 24-second span of the second period with both teams playing 4-on-4. Pageau tipped in Erik Karlsson‘s rebound. Shortly thereafter, Fleury was unable to freeze a rebound from Zack Smith, and Ceci darted in to poke the puck between Fleury’s pads and put the Senators up 3:25 into the second.
The 403rd consecutive sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center let out a sarcastic roar when Fleury managed to stop Ottawa’s next rush, his two shutouts last month apparently a distant memory.
Fleury finally settled down, giving Crosby and Pittsburgh’s scorching power play a chance to go to work. Crosby tied it at 4 with a wrist shot from the left circle 6:10 into the second and gave the Penguins the lead for good just more than 10 minutes later when he parked himself in front and had little trouble pushing a perfect centring pass from Evgeni Malkin by Anderson.
Crosby increased Pittsburgh’s advantage to 6-4 early in the third period, converting what looked like a potential turnover by Kunitz into a goal when he sprinted to the crease and redirected the puck into the net.
The Penguins needed the cushion. Dziurzynski’s first goal with 4:10 to go brought Ottawa within one, and twice the Senators clanged shots off the crossbar.
“Tonight was just crazy bounces,” Crosby said. “You feel for a goalie when he’s going through that and you want to get him the win, you want to find a way to win it. He’s bailed us so many times.”
NOTES: Penguins forward Eric Fehr left late in the second period with a lower-body injury and did not return. … Pittsburgh assistant coach Jacques Martin was not on the bench after feeling ill shortly before the game. … Ottawa begins a three-game homestand on Thursday against Edmonton. The Penguins play at Florida on Friday. … Pittsburgh went 2 for 5 on the power play. The Senators were 0 for 1.