Look up the word “clutch performer” in the dictionary of hockey terms and you’ll likely find Sidney Crosby’s picture underneath.
Then again, for someone who was voted in an NHLPA poll as the most difficult player in the league to play against, the best role model and team player, as well as the best future coach, you could put his picture under a number of different definitions.
That’s how dominant the Pittsburgh Penguins captain has been over the course of his Hall of Fame career. At the same time, it’s when the stakes are highest that Crosby is usually at his best. This is, after all, the same player who scored the “golden goal” for Canada at the 2010 Olympics and who has his name twice on the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
So it was hardly surprising that Crosby would step up as the hero in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal on Thursday. Down 2-0 in the third period to the Washington Capitals, the Penguins roared back and won 3-2 after scoring three goals in five minutes.
Crosby, who was on the ice for all three Pittsburgh goals, tied the game up on a one-timer and a couple of minutes later set up Jake Guentzel for the winner.
Given the opponent, the come-from-behind win seemed fitting — if not scripted — as though Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals were Charlie Brown running in to kick a field goal only to have Crosby pull the ball away at the last second. After all, this is a Washington team that has lost seven straight playoff rounds to Pittsburgh.
“It’s not like we put a game plan together to go out and say, ‘OK, we’re going to score three goals in three minutes,’” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said in a conference call on Friday. “But I think what our team does do is we have the ability to maximize the opportunities when we grab momentum in games.”
A lot of that, of course, has to do with a player who some had written off as old and out of gas earlier this season. It’s funny to look back on now, but there was a time in October and November when some wondered if the yearly strain of playing in back-to-back championships had finally taken its toll on Pittsburgh’s 30-year-old captain. Was this the beginning of the end? Was the torch finally being passed from Crosby to Connor McDavid and the next generation of stars?
Not quite. While McDavid ended up winning his second straight scoring title, he did so on a team that failed to reach the post-season. Crosby, meanwhile, has saved his best hockey for when it matters the most. Depending on what analogy you want to use, he has either flicked the switch or found another gear ever since the playoffs began.
A player who scored 89 points in the regular season — good enough for 10th overall — has seven goals and 15 points in seven playoff games. He’s on an 82-goal and 175-point pace. And he’s making it look easy at a time when the hockey should be at its most difficult.
“I don’t necessarily see a different player,” Sullivan said. “I see an elite player that brings his game to another level when the stakes are high. And that I just think is a testament to his competitive spirit, his appetite to win, and that’s what it takes to win a championship.
“Your best players have to be your best players and they have to bring their game to another level in order to have success. And Sid has done that time and time again for us.”
Indeed, a lot of the handwringing that’s going in Toronto after losing in Game 7 to the Boston Bruins these days is because Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews was not the same Auston Matthews he was in the regular season. He wasn’t the best player on the ice. He wasn’t even the best player on his team. The same thing happened in Minnesota, where 42-goal scorer Eric Staal had just one goal and one assist in five games, as well as in Los Angeles, where Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty combined for two points.
You can’t have success unless your stars are shining. And right now, Crosby’s star is burning the brightest. He’s not just elevating his own game — he’s making others around him better.
While Crosby is probably the early Conn Smythe Trophy favourite — that is, unless Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury goes 16-0 with 10 shutouts — Guentzel is leading all scorers with seven goals and 16 points.
“That’s one of the things that I think separates (Crosby) from other great players in the game. He has the ability to not only elevate his own game, but to certainly help the players around him and elevate those guys’ game as well,” said Sullivan. “Take nothing away from Jake — Jake’s done a terrific job, he’s certainly elevated his game — but certainly, I think Sid leads our team as far as what it takes to win at this time of year.
“His ability to elevate his game when the stakes are high is just so important. And he leads by example.”
Right now, he’s leading Pittsburgh to what could be a third consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup final. If that happens, you can bet his name will once again appear on the Conn Smythe Trophy.
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