OTTAWA – In a quiet moment after Friday’s critical series-knotting victory, as the cameras and notepads trudged out of the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room, Mike Sullivan walked in and approached Sidney Crosby’s stall.
“Good job,” the head coach whispered to the sweaty superstar. A quick, congratulatory butt pat and he walked out.
Not unlike Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf 24 hours earlier, Crosby was the best player on the ice in Game 4 because this is what he does. This is who he is. This is his job, and, my word, is he good at it.
The reason why it’s trendy to say the NHL’s captaincy is overrated is because there aren’t 30 men like this — not on blades, anyway. Singular talents possessed with so much smarts and fight and will that they can drive a whole team despite only playing less than a third of the clock.
Hockey doesn’t have its LeBron James because a skittering puck and constant contact doesn’t permit it. But if you look at the remaining captains in this bloody, bruised tournament of anguish and inches, you’d be hard-pressed to overvalue what Erik Karlsson or Getzlaf and Crosby mean to their clubs.
“Anytime he had the puck on his stick, he was flying with it,” said Chris Kunitz, who was elevated to the top line in one of Sullivan’s several lineup juggles.
“You know right from the start that he’s got it going. You want to give him the puck wherever he is and let him do his thing.
“Anytime your leader steps up like that, it really trickles down and lets everybody know we have another level of push to win a game.”
This was Crosby’s best performance of the series. Nay. This was his best game since the concussion he suffered against Washington on the first of the month, the one that had circles of the hockey world wondering if he was really OK health-wise.
“I don’t know if it’s a tribute to our [1-3-1 defensive] system and the way we play or if he’s feeling it. I don’t know. I don’t even want to speculate,” said Senators forward Bobby Ryan, after Crosby had been held to one point and a minus-4 rating through the conference final’s first three games.
“I tell you one thing: Every time Sid gets the puck, you’re still very aware.”
Crosby made the entire Canadian Tire Centre aware Friday. He fired a game-high five shots and set up Olli Maatta on a lovely three-on-two rush for the game’s opening goal, which beat Craig Anderson short side in part because the Sens goalie was cheating left, expecting Maatta to give the puck back to the Rocket Richard winner.
But it was Crosby’s 55th playoff goal that demands to be seen and re-seen.
Darting to Anderson’s far post during a Penguins’ second-period power-play he himself drew on Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Crosby jammed his right skate against the iron, lowered his left knee flush with the ice and splayed his leg out, anticipating a cross-ice pass from Jake Guentzel.
He didn’t want the pass to slip between his body and the post and wanted to give Guentzel a wide target.
“It was hard to find out where the puck is going to come from, so you just try to be as big as possible, try to knock the puck down. Sometimes it’s rolling, sometimes it’s not on your stick,” Crosby explained.
“I just try to be big and hope to keep it alive on the side of the net. … Nice to see it go in.”
“Sidney Crosby delivers in high-stakes hockey game” is hardly an original headline, but if he can lug these depleted Penguins through six more wins and become the first repeat Stanley Cup champion in 19 years, well, would this not be his most gruelling accomplishment?
“It always starts with our leadership. It starts with our captain,” Sullivan said.
“He leads by example, and I thought he had one of his best games tonight, Sid. But it doesn’t just stop with Sid. It goes down the bench.”
Or what’s left of it.
Crosby says the gauntlet the Penguins have run this spring — getting routinely outshot by Washington, watching his close friend Marc-Andre Fleury get pulled due to a poor team effort, seeing injuries (his own included) stack like Legos — has given him fresh appreciation for just how difficult it is to repeat in this angry, fluky sport.
“There are games where you’re not at your best and things like that and you don’t want it to happen,” Crosby said. “When you’re challenged, you want to respond.”
And if you’re Crosby, there is only one response: Even up the first series you’ve trailed, make this sucker a best-of-three, restore home-ice advantage and place a 10th game puck in the team’s 16-hole puck wall.
Do a good job.
“He bears a burden of responsibility,” Sullivan said. “That’s the type of person that he is. He cares so much about this Penguins team and trying to help this team win. I just think that’s part of who he is, and that’s what we love about him.”