Johnston: Crosby performing despite discomfort

Crosby’s post-season average of 1.34 points per game is the highest of any player since he entered the NHL in 2005. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

OTTAWA – It was a mozzarella stick that nearly did Sidney Crosby in.

Sitting in a local restaurant a couple weeks back, the Pittsburgh Penguins captain knew that he was in trouble immediately after biting into the breading with a broken jaw full of smashed teeth.

In fact, he had to reach into his throat and pry out the hot rubbery cheese to keep from choking on it. As you might imagine, it was a harrowing experience.

“It caught me by surprise,” Crosby recalled Tuesday.

While it’s the kind of situation he can laugh about now, it’s pretty clear that his latest injury was no laughing matter.

Crosby lost six or seven teeth – he can’t recall exactly how many – when he was struck in the face by a Brooks Orpik shot on March 30. It was his first shift of the game and he left a puddle of blood on the ice at Consol Energy Center.

Since then, he estimates he’s spent as much time in a dentist chair as he had in the previous few years combined. And that’s not a good thing.

“I don’t like going to dentist,” he said.

It makes his performance so far in these playoffs all the more impressive. He’s played just eight games since returning to the Penguins’ lineup after being sidelined for a month and has quickly managed to put himself among the league leaders in playoff scoring.

By now, that’s a position we’re accustomed to seeing him in.

Crosby’s post-season average of 1.34 points per game is the highest of any player since he entered the NHL in 2005. No wonder it was a point of pride for the Ottawa Senators that they managed to keep him off the scoresheet during 33 minutes eight seconds of ice time in Game 3.

The Senators have tasked the defensive pairing of Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot with trying to contain Crosby in this second-round series.

Goalie Craig Anderson played a big role in that during Sunday’s game as well.

“(Karlsson and Methot) both skate very well and I thought that they were able to maintain a gap that was sufficient enough to stall him,” said Senators coach Paul MacLean. “I still look at the tape and he got some chances too.”

Methot wasn’t overly eager to bask in the glory of one successful night.

“I don’t want to go in too far,” he said. “I’ll say one thing and he’ll go out there and have a stellar game the next one.”

While Crosby insists that he feels fine – he’s back to eating virtually everything with a jaw now being held together by a titanium plate – he is also unquestionably playing through some discomfort.

For starters, the shield protecting his jaw disrupts his peripheral vision. It also gets in the way when the puck is in his skates, which is why Crosby hopes he’ll be able to ditch it at some point during these playoffs.

Yet it hasn’t kept him from being a consistent force on the ice.

Jarome Iginla played with Crosby at the Vancouver Olympics and has had a chance to observe the 25-year-old closely since being acquired by the Penguins in late March. Needless to say, he’s come away impressed.

“It’s just reinforced what I already knew,” said Iginla. “He’s a very special player. His determination and focus … you see it every day, it’s not an on/off thing. He comes to the rink and he’s focused and it’s about getting better.

“I think that rubs off on all the guys.”

You can feel it around the veteran Penguins.

This is a focused group of players that expects nothing less than a trip to the Stanley Cup final. There was certainly no sense of worry or concern following the double overtime loss to Ottawa in Game 3.

Heading into Game 4 on Wednesday – a potentially pivotal moment in this series – Pittsburgh seemed ready to flex its muscles.

“With each game as the series goes along, it just becomes bigger and bigger,” said Crosby. “I think at this point both teams want that one pretty bad.”

Sitting in Joe Louis Arena four years ago on the night Crosby lifted the Stanley Cup at age 21, there was every reason to believe that the trophy would be going back to Pittsburgh again and again.

Back then, the Penguins looked like a surefire dynasty in the making.

But a series of bad luck and bad goaltending – not to mention the bad head and neck injuries to Crosby – have kept it from materializing. As a result, the core players on this roster have learned not to take anything for granted.

“Experience is definitely a nice thing to have but it doesn’t guarantee you anything,” said Crosby. “Guys who’ve been in different situations and played in a number of playoff series (know) every one is kind of unique. There’s no storyline that ever seems the same. You go through things but it seems like it never really goes the same way twice.

“So I think you kind of have to prepare for that and make sure you appreciate it and make the most of the opportunities you get.”

In this instance, Crosby has a little more motivation than usual to keep playing long into the spring.

A series of dental surgeries beckon in the off-season – Crosby expects that it will take a couple different procedures to put his mouth back together – and the Penguins star isn’t particularly eager to climb back into the dentist’s chair.

In the meantime, he plans to avoid the mozzarella sticks.

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