Sidney Crosby’s impact on Penguins goes deeper than points

Since the beginning, the pair have been presented as rivals. Two stars with polar opposite styles, but both dominant in their own way. And now, they clash.

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – “It’s the playoffs. It’s part of it.”

That was Sidney Crosby’s response last round when told Eric Staal had mentioned that most people don’t realize how difficult it is to occupy Crosby’s skate boots at this time of year.

“You’re an offensive guy, you want to score – especially him, it gets magnified in every situation if the guy doesn’t score for three games,” Staal said during a chat with Sportsnet. “It’s on the front page or whatever.”

We may not have reached that stage yet, but we’re getting close. There is certainly some smoke gathering on the horizon.

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If Crosby doesn’t score Tuesday and the Penguins fail to close out Washington, it will be a five-alarm fire of a storyline heading into Game 7.

He’s got 10 points in 10 games during these playoffs, but doesn’t have a goal to show for the last six.

To borrow the earlier phrase from the Pittsburgh captain: “It’s the playoffs. It’s part of it.”

What stands out most about Crosby now is his demeanour. He’s plenty used to this annual rite of spring – the fretting over his puck luck – and the 28-year-old leaves you with the impression he’s completely unburdened by it.

However, just because he can live with it doesn’t make it right.

It’s awfully easy to get lost in the moment while in the throes of a playoff series and miss the big picture. Take a step back and you see that no one has more post-season assists (82) or points (128) than Crosby since he entered the NHL in 2005. Only three players have scored more than his 46 goals in that time.

He has been a big-time performer and set the standard for this generation of players, but still we want more.

This is not to suggest that Crosby is unassailable or hasn’t struggled occasionally at important times, but it is a reminder that even though he’s a superstar he’s not superhuman.

It is not all that different than the scrutiny he faced while captaining Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics. You would have thought a national summit needed to be called when he went through the first three games – all wins – without scoring.

Of course, the screaming quieted considerably by the time he went backhand-deke on Henrik Lundqvist while captaining his country to Olympic gold.

The problem seems to lie in the fact that this sport is occasionally misunderstood even by those that love it most. While individuals often make a significant impact on a moment – no one would deny that Alex Ovechkin didn’t help will Washington to its spirited Game 5 victory – it is a team that wins over the long haul.

Just look at Crosby in these playoffs. He’s been the centre of a larger whole.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has elected to deploy him on a line with Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist because he wanted the weapons to be spread around. They generated some offence at 5-on-5 against the New York Rangers, but Crosby’s production was boosted by five power-play points in that series.

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Then the second round arrives and for four games he’s matched up against Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. All three of those players are arguably more talented than the guys Crosby is currently skating with.

In fact, Oshie has probably been the best individual performer so far in this series.

At the same time Pittsburgh’s power play has dried up while facing the NHL’s second-best penalty killing unit – Chris Kunitz’s Game 5 goal on a Crosby assist notwithstanding – and when you add it together it’s pretty easy to understand why No. 87’s production has slowed.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of the 2009 Stanley Cup final, when Crosby and Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk basically neutralized each other over seven games and allowed a few of the role players to score their way to glory.

We must remember that there is more than one path to the promised land. The Chicago Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup with Jonathan Toews scoring seven goals and 29 points in the playoffs, and they won another where he had three goals and 14 points.

Now the Penguins are one win away from reaching the Eastern Conference final at the end of a series where Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have combined for one goal. But that doesn’t mean they’re winning in spite of their stars.

“These guys have had an impact on the game,” said Sullivan. “They might not have had the offensive production that everybody grows accustomed to, but they certainly have had an impact on this series, moreso than what you guys give them credit (for).”

Crosby has hit a post and endured some bad bounces. He’s had good looks.

He’d obviously love to be scoring – “you always want more,” he said Monday – but if we’ve learned anything about the world’s best player, it’s that he’ll eventually find his way through the noise and the bad matchups to do what he’s always done.

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