PITTSBURGH — In the middle of chaos, the puck allowed Sidney Crosby a rare moment of clarity.
There it was, on his stick as the Pittsburgh Penguins star stood at the goal line on Monday night. In front of him, the New Jersey Devils were too busy tangling with Crosby’s teammates to notice the two-time MVP on the doorstep, giving him enough time to flip the rebound to his forehand before sending it past sprawled Devils goaltender Cory Schneider.
A split second later, the red light came on. The Penguins had a lead they would never relinquish and their captain moved a step closer to putting a prolonged slump firmly in his rearview mirror.
“It was kind of nice there to have some time and the puck lying there,” Crosby said. “Just tried to make sure I put it in.”
His 17th goal of the season capped a 5-1-2 surge into the All-Star break. Floundering in December, Pittsburgh heads to February with something resembling momentum, fueled in part by a leader who appears to be embracing new head coach Mike Sullivan’s team-wide challenge to his players to get their hands dirty.
Look at Crosby’s inelegant face-first dive to the ice after his ninth goal in his last seven games at Consol Energy Center as proof. For all his considerable talent, coaches have struggled to figure out how to best use him on the power play. On Monday there he was, down in the thick of things and ready to pounce when given the chance.
“He’s scored a fair amount of goals and a lot of them are in the hard areas, right around the blue paint where you have to take a cross check or you’ve got to get your nose over the puck and pay a price in order to score,” Sullivan said. “I think he’s a world-class player that has the skill sets to play in those areas and he plays he plays with courage.”
Crosby’s always been a grinder. His relentlessness and work ethic is one of the reasons he’s spent the majority of his first decade as the face of the NHL. It made the drastic drop-off in production at the beginning of the season all the more troubling. He had just six goals and 13 assists in the first 28 games, well off the career averages of a player who has led the league in points per game five times.
He wasn’t injured. He was just … off. Though Crosby insisted he was fine with head coach Mike Johnston’s system, there were stretches – long stretches – where Crosby’s No. 87 would become invisible on the ice, a once unthinkable prospect. When Johnston was fired on Dec. 12, Crosby didn’t exactly offer a spirited defence of Johnston’s methods.
Enter Sullivan, who has repeated many of the same thoughts Johnston and Dan Bylsma late in his tenure tried to impress upon a roster that sometimes appeared too intent on making every goal a highlight-reel GIF than just finding a way – any way – to get the puck behind the opposing goalie. After an initial adjustment period, the energetic Sullivan’s booming voice – a stark contrast to the more professorial Johnston – appears to be getting through.
Crosby has 14 points in his last 11 games, some of them coming in typically un-Crosbylike ways. His tying goal against Philadelphia last week came when he took a pass from Chris Kunitz deep in the left circle. It’s a spot where Crosby almost always looks to pass, and linemate Patric Hornqvist was parked right in front of the net. Only the pass never game. Crosby instead flicked a dart over Steve Mason’s shoulder the goaltender didn’t even react to, maybe because he was so surprised Crosby shot it at all. Two games earlier against Carolina, Crosby went to his knees a couple feet from the goal crease to get in position for a feed from Phil Kessel to clang off his skate and into the net.
“We see the results from doing it but that doesn’t make it any easier,” Crosby said. “It’s a tough spot to go and there’s a lot of execution that comes with it.”
Pittsburgh heads into a week-long break tied with New Jersey for eighth in the Eastern Conference. The crisis is far from over. Yet the Penguins are playing their best hockey of a tumultuous season. His muddled first half of the season cost Crosby a spot on the All-Star team – imagine that happening to one of the most popular players in any other league – yet he’ll take the respite, keep his legs fresh and his sights firmly set on getting back to the post-season.
“He’s playing inspiring hockey,” Sullivan said. “I think he’s playing with passion. He’s playing hard, he’s playing in battle areas and he’s getting rewarded for it.”