PITTSBURGH – They had started making excuses for him, Sidney Crosby's(notes) teammates and coaches and supporters, and it was all rather unbecoming. Pretext does not work for superstars. They perform or they don't, and for the first three games of the Stanley Cup Finals, the man on whom the National Hockey League foists its everything disappeared like he'd been swooped into witness protection.
As much as the ineffectiveness bothered Crosby, the explanations did likewise, because he is one of the planet's best hockey players, and his play ought to speak for itself. And so it was a different Crosby on the ice for Game 4 against Detroit on Thursday night, the sort that Pittsburgh needs to dethrone the Red Wings, the one whose contributions were tangible and not shadowy pronouncements.
Crosby scored a goal finally, the eventual game-winner. He tallied an assist on another, a gorgeous play that weaved through the Red Wings' defense like a loom. The Penguins beat the Red Wings 4-2 to even the series at two wins apiece, and this was a different 4-2 than Pittsburgh's win in Game 3. Pittsburgh was clearly the better and fresher team, its youth evident in a surprising contrast with the Wings, who lurched off the ice a spent bunch.
None more than Henrik Zetterberg(notes), their brilliant two-way center who for the first three games stalked Crosby with such proficiency that it warranted a restraining order. He averaged 23 ½ minutes per game, nearly four more than his season average, and Game 3 was a particular grind: 24 minutes, 19 seconds in 31 shifts, Crosby his elusive mark. All that chasing and nudging left Zetterberg bent over at the end of Game 4, the coming off-day needed more than ever.
Orpik was blunt in his assessment: Crosby had worn down Detroit. This is nothing of which to be ashamed. It happens to Orpik daily in practice. He tries to stay with Crosby. He fails. And then comes the injury to insult: He's dead tired afterward to boot.
"Sid's just so unique," Orpik said. "His feet never stop. His motor never stops. He's relentless. … He's a real physical player. He might not run you over, but just battling with him takes a lot out of you."
Zetterberg didn't go that far. He blamed his fatigue on how hard he plays and shrugged off Orpik's theory on Crosby. No one outside of Pittsburgh dare give Crosby due. He is Cindy Crosby, the whiny (insert any number of expletives) who can't grow a proper playoff beard because he's a whiny (insert different expletive) who the league wants to win the championship. And he's a whiny … well, you know.
"He's a very skilled player," said Zetterberg, diplomacy and tongue-biting winning out. "He's working hard. When we're turning pucks over, giving odd-man rushes, they're making good plays.
"Second period we had a turnover clinic, and we can't have that against a team like this."
A clinic it was, the Penguins tying the game on a short-handed goal by Jordan Staal(notes) that stemmed from a giveaway. Less than two minutes later, Pittsburgh found itself with a 2-on-1 break, Crosby flying down the left side and Evgeni Malkin(notes) zooming up the right with the puck. Few situations in the NHL are of a similar damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't variety, and Detroit goalie Chris Osgood(notes) could only flail as Malkin delivered a pass that Crosby buried for his first goal of the series.
Detroit called a timeout. It didn't help. The Penguins started another odd-man rush, this time 3-on-2, with Crosby streaking by himself. Chris Kunitz(notes) hit him with a cross-ice pass and Crosby redirected it back across diagonally to Tyler Kennedy(notes), who beat Osgood for a 4-2 advantage with 5:48 left in the second period.
That none of the Penguins' goal-scorers is older than 22 is a terrifying thought. While Kennedy is green and Staal inconsistent, Malkin is an MVP candidate and Crosby the anointed ever since Pittsburgh chose him with the first pick in the 2005 draft. Already he has exceeded his postseason points total from last year, scoring his league-leading 15th goal and tallying his 16th assist Thursday. The Penguins are 8-3 when he scores in the playoffs and 1-3 when he's held pointless.
"When Sid's scoring and he's playing at the top of his game, we're obviously a better team," Penguins winger Bill Guerin(notes) said. "He's had to deal with Henrik Zetterberg for the last couple games, and that's not an easy task. Sid's been playing well all along. It's just, goals and assists aren't easy to come by against this team."
The first part: True. For the Penguins to beat the Red Wings over a seven-game series, they need the elite Crosby. The second part: Blah, blah and more blah, all of it apologist hokum.
Crosby missed 10 shots the first three games. He wasn't creating opportunities. Certainly Zetterberg was part of the reason and luck a sliver of it – remember Crosby's shot landing squarely on Osgood's back? – but Crosby talks about how his game, and not others', dictates his play.
Which is the requisite mentality for superstardom: that Crosby is the catalyst for everything on the ice, the player on whom the defense collapses and the one to whom his teammates look. He is something of an obsessive that way, and at 21 years old, he's only beginning to figure out how to properly channel transcendent talent.
"That's almost the beauty of what he brings to our team and the game," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's not stopping until he knows he's gotten the best he can be, and that ain't ever going to happen. It's going to be a continual process for him."
Game 5 is the newest test. Last season, after beating Detroit in Game 3 at Mellon Arena, the Penguins lost the fourth game at home. Despite a triple-overtime win at Joe Louis Arena, the Penguins couldn't muster a second season-saving win and lost Game 6 at home. The series is returning to Pittsburgh again this year – and it could be for a clincher.
Crosby, of course, will have the usual suspects with whom he contends: Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) and the rest of Detroit's deep corps. Perhaps, too, will MVP candidate and two-way maelstrom Pavel Datsyuk(notes) return from the right-foot injury that has kept him out the last seven games. Something different, anything, because the last thing the Red Wings needed was Crosby's return to form.
"It feels good to see one go in," Crosby said.
For him, and for all those teammates and coaches and supporters. They didn't need excuses anymore. Their proof was in the back of the net.