Sidney Crosby reclaims place among greats after slow start

Sidney Crosby can do it all, proving it with this one-handed assist on Connor Sheary's goal against the Sabres.

PITTSBURGH — It’s not a feeling Sidney Crosby encounters often, if ever.

The Pittsburgh Penguins captain and face of hockey in Canada isn’t usually searching for answers on the ice like he was early this season. Not only were goals hard to come by, Crosby felt as though he wasn’t effective at all.

He didn’t land his first point until the sixth game of October, had only two goals through the first 18 games, and finished the first month of the season with the fewest points (5) of his career. From overall production to puck possession, just about every measure suggested something was off with arguably the game’s best player.

More troubling for Crosby were the lack of chances.

“You’d go through times where it wouldn’t go in and that’s one thing, but I hadn’t really gone through something where you weren’t really feeling like you had much of an impact on the game,” Crosby said in a post-practice interview this week. “And that was the tough part.”

The struggles persisted well into November before Crosby finally turned a corner. He’s since reclaimed his place among the league’s top echelon, outscoring everyone in 2016.

“Looking back I was probably guilty of trying to do too much,” Crosby said. “I just felt like I just needed to go out and play and not think about the ones that weren’t going in and just think about how I can just get back to feeling good out there and getting chances.”

He took a step back and simplified his approach, concluding that he had to get his edge back in hounding the puck. Protect it and attack it more ferociously and the offence would follow.

It’s his ability to control the rubber disc that Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury says is most evident when Crosby is at his best.

“That’s what I more or less tried to get back to,” Crosby said. “When you’re on the puck more you’re creating more because you have the puck and then when you’re making plays fast you have more time to make plays when you’re moving.

“Sometimes when you struggle you’re trying to look for the perfect play and then you start to slow down and you feel like you have less time. It’s not that complicated when you’re really sit back and think about it. It’s pretty easy. (I’m) trying to make sure that I just play, let the game come to me and react out there instead of thinking.”

Crosby is second only to Patrick Kane in scoring since the start of November (though outscoring him at even-strength) and third overall this season despite the slow start.

He’s been on an unrivalled tear in 2016. Prior to Thursday’s game against Nashville, Crosby had 23 goals and 29 assists since Jan. 1. His 59 per cent puck possession mark in that span only emboldens him.

Crosby feels like he gets chances in bunches when he’s in a zone like this, six, seven, sometimes eight on any given night. In fact, no forward has helped his team generate more even-strength scoring chances, according to stats site, during this ongoing three-month blitz. The more looks Crosby gets the more the confidence flows, much like a shooter in basketball might heat up as the ball keeps falling through the hoop.

“I think it’s the same thing in hockey, if you get good starts and you get some chances, you feel like even if you do miss those ones you’re getting a bunch of chances with time they’re going to go in,” he said.

Crosby has been the usual catalyst to a scorching Penguins run, one that’s seen them rack up the third-most points in the league since late December.

A coaching change that saw Mike Sullivan replace Mike Johnston has helped. The Penguins are scoring and possessing the puck far more under Sullivan.

Crosby likes the accountability Sullivan has brought and is pleased with the varying ways that Pittsburgh has managed to win, even as it misses key talents like Evgeni Malkin and defenceman Olli Maatta.

Might that mean a deep playoff run for the Penguins? An aging Sid the Kid hopes so. It’ll be seven years in June since a then-21-year-old Crosby captured his first and only Stanley Cup.

“I definitely want to do it again,” he said.

Crosby turns 29 in August.

“The time’s definitely gone by quick,” said Crosby, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005. “Definitely during the concussion and stuff it seemed to drag on pretty slow. Since then it’s gone by quick and I feel as old as I am, not any younger, not any older.”

Crosby doesn’t so much dwell on Cup opportunities missed in recent years, including a first-round exit last spring. One player, he suggests, can only do so much to affect the outcome of a playoff tournament that requires some luck and a litany of quality performances.

He’s also not worried that the window to win another Cup has closed, pointing out that Ray Bourque had to wait until his final NHL season to hoist his first trophy.

A Penguins Cup run this spring is conceivable given Crosby’s return to dominance and the team’s scorching success under Sullivan.

“I don’t think there’s any kind of storyline it has to follow as long as you can get back there and win them,” Crosby concluded. “That’s all that matters.”

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