It’s often unfair to pin a team’s welfare in a playoff series on one player. As Connor McDavid has shown us the last two seasons, if you’re an elite player and you’re on an island, you’re gonna have a few bad games every once in a while and it’s not really your fault.
But if your team is playing badly and you are also playing badly, even if you’re an elite player, you cannot be immune from criticism. At this point, the only acceptable excuse for the way Sidney Crosby has played in the first three games of this series against the Islanders is if both of his legs and one of his arms were broken between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs.
Say what you want about them, but the Pens’ other big offensive stars are contributing. Malkin has a goal and two assists. Kessel has one and one. Crosby, who’s coming off a borderline MVP season, has as many points as I do. And I’ve played considerably fewer minutes.
Let’s get some of the excuses out of the way: He’s always going to be asked to carry his own water and the Penguins are always going to put him next to guys who are only going to be able to get by and not pick up the slack when he’s having a rare off night. Mike Sullivan has, at some point in the series, put six different wingers with Crosby for at least a shift at 5-on-5. Bryan Rust was his steady right wing for Games 1 and 2, then Dominik Simon.
Kessel and Crosby aren’t really compatible in their playing styles, Rust has never been a guy who moves the needle himself, and Simon (12 goals in 109 career games) might not even have Crosby’s phone number.
Plus, y’know, Barry Trotz has a lot of experience playing Crosby in the postseason and should have a pretty good understanding of how to shut him down. It’s probably not a coincidence that Trotz — who’s an elite coach in this league — has improved his teams’ performances against Crosby in each of the last three postseasons.
Crosby buried the Capitals relative to the rest of the Penguins in 2016. The next season, his underlying numbers were meh at best. Then last year, in 2018 when the Caps finally broke through, Crosby’s underlyings were mostly subpar. This year they’re downright bad. You give a great coach enough cracks at even one of the best players in the world, and the results are gonna worsen over time.
And of course, any time you’re Sidney Crosby and you’ve been on the ice for 18 high-danger chances and only have two goals to show for it, you’ve been unlucky.
But because this is Sidney Crosby and Sidney Crosby is who he is, it wouldn’t matter if the Islanders brought aboard the Sharks’ defense and the Vegas offense to match against Crosby. You expect him to create scoring chances, given his place in the sport over the last decade-plus. He hasn’t been on the ice for a goal since Game 1 and neither of the ones he was out for was at 5-on-5.
It’s tough to say, at this point, the Penguins can’t afford to just put Malkin out there with Crosby. They’ve shared the ice for just two minutes at full strength, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re dominating together (100s across the board in their underlyings). If Malkin were playing great without Crosby, sure, you can’t justify putting them together.
But back against the wall, you just gotta dump all your best guys onto one line and hope two of the five best centers in the sport can pull your butt out of the fire. No one else can. Crosby, in particular, hasn’t done it on his own.
That’s on his coach and his teammates, but mostly it’s on the man himself.
31 Takes: Playoff Edition (which means there are only 16, then only eight, then only four, then only two)
Boston Bruins: Any time the Bruins win after they lose, the dopes in the local media say it was because they threw some checks or something. Tale as old as time. It’s stupid. “Jake DeBrusk almost ended Nazem Kadri’s career and later got cross-checked in the face and actually that, to me, is good.” I think the main difference is that they didn’t give up 15 odd-man rushes and controlled the puck for almost the entire first 40 minutes, but y’know, hitting.
Calgary Flames: You gotta give Mike Smith credit. He’s been great in these first two games and at least in Game 2, the team in front of him didn’t make it all that easy on him. Which, hey, good for him and maybe you wonder how long it’s gonna last, but I think for the most part the Flames just need him to be average if they’re gonna win this series. But like he said, sometimes Nathan MacKinnon gets an open look and it’s game over.
Carolina Hurricanes: I think it’s good to say when refs do a bad job because no one should be safe from that kind of scrutiny, and I think Rod Brind’Amour was right to say the refs made the wrong call on the Ferland hit. With that said, Washington has decisively outplayed this team, which seemingly only through the power of score effects can make games interesting. Expected goals in the series favor the Caps by a little bit more than one and that seems just about right if you’ve actually watched them both. Plus, stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Hurricanes can’t get a save.
Colorado Avalanche: So the Avs signed Cale Makar and will have him in their lineup against the Flames tonight. Hard to project how a kid who played college hockey twice this weekend will do in the bigs, thrown into the middle of a tied playoff series, but his all-situations on-ice goal difference for UMass this season was plus-59 in 41 games. When he was off the ice, the rest of the team went plus-9. The Minutemen’s per-60 goal difference improved almost 800 percent when he came off the bench, so………..
Columbus Blue Jackets: A great thing about this Blue Jackets start to the series is that there is no “told you so” nonsense from even the biggest Columbus homers. Everyone is in complete shock and that’s such a joy to me. For everyone to simultaneously react to every dominant period, every goal, with “Holy hell can you believe that?” is the best. I know people used to keep track of what the “experts” picked for every series but did literally anyone at all pick Columbus to win this series, let alone potentially pull off a sweep? If so, maybe hire them to be your team’s next GM. Just thinking out loud.
Dallas Stars: This series has lived up to its promise which is to say that it has been a closely played slog and not particularly fun to watch. These teams clearly don’t like each other much and that’s usually cool, so why does this series — for all its apparent nastiness, and how competitive both games were, and how high-paced it’s been — seem so, I don’t know, sterile? Maybe it’s the fact that there were almost three full days between Wednesday’s opener and Saturday’s Game 2. Maybe because they scored eight total goals and 10.5 expected goals in six-plus periods of hockey.
Nashville Predators: That said, the overtime in Game 2 was really fun and you could tell Nashville was emptying the tanks so it didn’t go down 2-0. Because neither team really trusts its offense, this has been a bit of a defensive slog, but the Preds just went all out, put up six scoring chances in five minutes, and just totally ran the extra period. That’s the promise of their roster, for sure. They need to bring that down to Dallas.
New York Islanders: Jordan Eberle had a kinda mediocre regular season but I think he might have Freaky Friday’d with Sid Crosby because he looks like a damn MVP. Three goals, an assist, and just absolutely crushing the Pens at 5-on-5. Remember when the Oilers traded this guy for not being able to perform in the playoffs? Huh. Interesting how that worked out for all involved. Of course, the New York media stays the New York media.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Top to bottom, the Pens have been bad and they only continue to employ their strategy of being very stupid on a lot of the Islanders goals. Like, they’re not generating anything in the attacking end, for sure, but they’re so Keystone Kops out there that they might as well slip on banana peels and buy products from Acme. You’d say it’s a comedy of errors but in reality it’s more like Bojack Horseman in that it gets billed as a comedy but it’s just a bummer. Not that the legion of Pens haters aren’t thrilled but these guys are Sideshow Bob with the rakes and everyone expected better.
San Jose Sharks: Martin Jones is now below .850 — eight fifty — in postseason save percentage. There’s just no way to describe how bad that is. It happens more often than you’d think, but almost never to a team’s actual No. 1. Only three goalies in recent memory have been their teams’ starters for three games or more and been this bad. The other two were Evgeni Nabokov at age 37, and meltdown-mode Fleury in 2012.
St. Louis Blues: The problem with playing a super-talented team like Winnipeg is that you can play most of the game pretty well (which St. Louis certainly did on Sunday night) and sometimes you’re just gonna make two mistakes and they’re in the back of the net and the game is over. One of the big mistakes — for a lot of reasons — is that Brayden Schenn went after Dustin Byfuglien early in the second with the game tied and put his team in a 4-on-4 situation. One team you don’t want to do that to? Winnipeg. Patrik Laine scored real quick after that, Kyle Connor scored 1:11 later. That’s it. Don’t try to fight Dustin Byfuglien.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The last time these guys lost three games in a row was March 20-24, 2018. That was more than 100 games ago. It would be insanely funny if they got swept, obviously, but would it be funnier if they got reverse-swept? Like at the end of the series there’s a wink and a smile, “Haha we had it the whole way.” Now that I put it down in writing, I think that would definitely be funnier. But I ain’t banking on it.
Toronto Maple Leafs: I wonder why Nazem Kadri doesn’t have half the reputation for dirty play that Brad Marchand does. Definitely both the suspensions in the last two playoffs were dumber than anything Marchand ever did, because those both crossed the line from “playing with an edge” to “being a huge dumbass.” He’s gonna get suspended for the rest of the series. Very smart.
Vegas Golden Knights: Vegas has 13 goals in the series (thanks Marty!) and Mark Stone has been on the ice for 10 of them. He has six himself. He assisted on two more. I would imagine that 66.7 percent shooting efficiency comes down juuuuust a bit once he plays a real goalie but truly, this is a man who is on one. You have to love it.
Washington Capitals: I truly love when a player does a thing I have never seen before and “kicking a guy’s stick out of his hand right before scoring” is way up there for me. TJ Oshie is iconic to me for this. It’s cooler than all those Olympic shootout goals against Russia. He kicked the guy’s stick. Dangerous, yeah. Cool, hell yeah. Incredible. I love it. Let’s go!
Winnipeg Jets: Changing the lines so that your most talented players are playing together works sometimes. That’s just a note to Mike Sullivan. No particular reason.
Gold Star Award
Robin Lehner looking like this season’s Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s .951 through three games and has faced more shots than anyone in these playoffs. Gotta hand it to him.
Minus of the Weekend
If you give up an OT goal to Brooks Orpik, that should be like losing two games.
Play of the Weekend
Let’s just watch this 40 times. As “cool stuff a puck carrier did” goes, it’s not as cool as when Kovalev intentionally ran over Darcy Tucker at 600 miles an hour, but it’s really damn close.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “A loyal dog” is a good boy.
8th OA pick
Conditional 3rd round pick (if Habs make playoffs in 2019-20, Edmonton gets 3rd round pick 2020, if no playoffs, Edmonton gets 4th round pick 2020
Ice cubes are useless, man. Chewing gum’s got to be chewed out.
Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
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