BOSTON — “You have high expectations. You expect to be in the finals every year. But if anything, I think you appreciate how tough it is to get there, what it takes, probably even more so.”
Sidney Crosby said that in September 2010. If he only knew. He was 23 then. He had just experienced his first real failure, scoring one goal in seven games as the Pittsburgh Penguins were upset by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs, but it seemed like a blip, a bump, an aberration.
He already had a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal, not to mention an MVP award, a scoring title and a goal-scoring title. It wasn’t a question of if he would win more, but how much more he would win. He was the face of the NHL with so much to look forward to. The Winter Classic was coming to the ’Burgh on New Year’s Day!
Well, we all know what has happened since, and we all know what is happening now.
A concussion suffered in that Winter Classic cost Crosby one playoff run, and injuries might have cost him two MVP awards, two scoring titles and a goal-scoring title, at least. Though the Penguins have advanced past the second round for the first time in four years, they face a 3-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference final against the Boston Bruins.
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Crosby has zero points in the series. He has lost his composure. He has turned over the puck. Not only has he failed to be a difference-maker, but he has even been a liability at times. The best player in the world has been at his worst.
Yes, Sidney Crosby is still the best player in the world. It would be foolish to lose perspective based on one series, especially based on only three games.
Remember when Claude Giroux outdueled Crosby last year? After Philadelphia finished its first-round upset of Pittsburgh, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette referred to Giroux as “the best player in the world,” taking a subtle but clear shot at Crosby. How does that look now? Giroux didn’t come close to Crosby in the regular season, and we can’t compare Giroux to Crosby in the playoffs because the Flyers didn’t make them.
Crosby has averaged .493 goals per game and 1.296 points per game in the playoffs over his career. But let’s say he is overrated, overhyped, over-adored by NBC and the powers that be. After all, he didn’t win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player when the Penguins won the Cup in 2009; Evgeni Malkin did. He wasn’t named the best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics despite his golden goal; Jonathan Toews was.
Malkin, a former MVP and scoring champion himself, also has zero points in this series. Toews, a Conn Smythe winner himself, has one point in four games for the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference final (and one goal and seven points in 16 playoff games overall).
This is hockey. Even the best players can be shut down when they run into targeted game plans, responsible defenses and great goaltenders night after night, plus unforgiving goal posts. Crosby and Malkin both hit posts in the third period of Game 3. Had one of those pucks gone in, maybe the Penguins would have cut their series deficit to 2-1 and we’d be writing about how a star came through in the clutch.
When Crosby and Malkin are healthy, that means they are playing leading roles, and that means they need to produce in proportion. They have played 81 playoff games together. In 65 of those games, at least one of them has recorded a point. The Pens have gone 45-20. In the other 16, neither has recorded a point. The Pens have gone 2-14.
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But this is the first time since 2009 that Crosby has gone three straight playoff games without a point, and this is the first time since 2008 that Malkin has. That illustrates three things: One, they aren’t producing in this particular series, a huge disappointment for Pittsburgh. Two, this is rare. Three, depth matters. Crosby didn’t record a point in Games 5-7 of the ’09 Cup final, the most important games possible. The Penguins won the Cup, anyway. Max Talbot, a checker, scored both goals in the 2-1 clincher against the Detroit Red Wings.
One of the arguments against Crosby’s Hart Trophy candidacy this season was that the Penguins kept winning after he suffered a broken jaw, and so as valuable as he was, he wasn’t necessarily the most valuable player. The Pens have won without Crosby and Malkin in the lineup often in recent years.
Why aren’t they winning without them on the scoresheet in this series, especially when general manager Ray Shero went all-in at the trade deadline and has called this the deepest team they have had? Because all that depth has suddenly gone dry, too. The Penguins have only two goals in more than 215 minutes of hockey in this series. Kris Letang, James Neal and Jarome Iginla are among the other Penguins with zero points against the Bruins. Had Craig Adams scored and not hit a post in double overtime of Game 3, the situation would not be so desperate.
“I think every team would love to make the Stanley Cup finals every year, but it’s not going to happen. I hope we don’t lose another time in the playoffs the rest of the time I play hockey, but percentages probably say that we will.”
Sidney Crosby said that in September 2010, too. It has been tough to win the Cup in any era, and one player has never made a team, no matter how great. Wayne Gretzky won four Cups in 20 seasons, Gordie Howe four in 26, Bobby Orr two in 12, Mario Lemieux two in 18. And this is the era of the salary cap and the concussion.
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The Penguins had gone up, up, up in the Crosby era – missing the playoffs, losing in the first round, making the Cup final, winning the Cup – until that loss to the Canadiens. It has been a roller coaster since – a first-round loss with no Crosby or Malkin, a first-round loss with Crosby and Malkin, and now this. The Eastern Conference final is a step forward, but not far enough.
Crosby has risen to a new level, battled concussion problems, come back as great as before and suffered a broken jaw. He missed a month and put up seven goals and 15 points in 10 playoff games, and suddenly he's struggling.
He is still only 25. He is still the face of the NHL and should still have much to look forward to. Yet if anyone should know not to take anything for granted, it should be him, and if the Penguins lose this series, one more precious chance will be gone. Crosby will have been humbled, not just by his own mistakes, like his brutal giveaway that led to a goal early in Game 2, not just by the Bruins, who have smothered him, but by the game itself.
Crosby lost his helmet in double overtime of Game 3. He kept chugging with that head and jaw exposed, trying to create something, trying to do what the best player in the world is supposed to do. But not long afterward, the puck ended up in the Pittsburgh net instead. Just when he thought he appreciated how tough it was to get to the Cup final, it got even tougher.
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