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Penguins Grades: Tough Win, Sidney Crosby Deserves Hart Trophy Talk

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Valtteri Puustinen

MONTREAL — Sidney Crosby. The boy who could remember his seats from attending his first Montreal Canadiens game many years ago is now 36, and he’s carrying the Pittsburgh Penguins. The captain scored his 16th and 17th goals in 28 games, he is the black-and-gold line between the Penguins and a disastrous season.

He scored three points Wednesday, including those two goals, to will the sloppy Penguins to a 4-3 shootout win over the Canadiens at Centre Bell.

The Penguins’ first two periods were disparate. Uneven play and lethargic puck battles in one 20-minute period, followed by the aggressive on-their-toes forecheck. Listless slumber, then attack mode.

“It wasn’t the cleanest game just from a tactical standpoint. But I just love the people and the resilience, and just the sticktoitiveness,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We didn’t start the way we wanted to start, but we kept fighting. We climbed back in the game, and I thought the power play once again made a big difference for us.”

The Penguins power play making a positive impact. Who woulda thought?

Crosby quietly remains among the NHL elite, racing toward rarified statistics at 36, achieved only by Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe. The original stalwart of this hockey generation has been so good for so long that it’s easy to take it for granted. Many do. While the attention shifts from Jack Hughes in New Jersey and Connor McDavid in Edmonton as the shiny new toys, the lack of attention sometimes seems as if Crosby has been cast into the isle of misfit toys.

“I think we just grow accustomed to it. I think he plays the game at an elite level all the time,” Sullivan said. “He has the ability to raise his game when he needs to, and he does in so many different circumstances. He still has elite play in this game. You know, we have the privilege to watch him.”

Crosby. Hart Trophy candidate. Pass it on.

And yes, the Montreal media room was talking about it, too.

The Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia native put on a show in front of the closest thing he has to a hometown in the NHL. Crosby lifted his team from the embarrassment they seemed certain to wear to a tie game and eventually a shootout win. After 40 minutes, Crosby had three points, including two goals. He nearly had the hat trick, but his deflection at the end of the second period crossed the goal line a moment after time expired.

If his team were half as good on Wednesday, they would have easily taken two points from the bleu blanc et rouge. And, of course, Crosby also scored in the record-long 12-round shootout (a Penguins record for longest shootout).

Penguins Analysis

The Penguins have a day off in Toronto on Thursday. They’ll get a chance to enjoy some Montreal nightlife or activities with the Dad’s trip if they choose, but they were already unbuttoned at the start of the game.

Montreal outshot them 15-11, but it seemed far more lopsided.

The Penguins were slow, disjointed, and sloppy in the first period. The turnovers and mistakes were not small but instead egregious. It was tough to discern the Penguins’ scheme because they were chasing the puck for what seemed the entirety of the first period.

“It was tough for us. I think we did as (well) as we could, and we’re still in the hole. But I think we found our way in the second,” said Erik Karlsson. “Getting power play goals helps a lot. And I think we created enough today to deserve this W. Even though it took us — I don’t know how many guys — all 13 guys in the shootout. (Alex Nedeljkovic) made the saves that we needed him to make to keep us in the game. It’s definitely nice to get a win on a back-to-back with the team that we have.”

With Crosby’s help, the Penguins got some good vibrations in the first period and a lot in the second. Their pace quickened, and the scoring chances followed. Those loose pucks that Canadiens sticks controlled in the first period became Penguins pucks. They generated speed through the neutral zone and pushed the Canadiens to defend. They dumped the puck deep and were able to retrieve it, gaining territory and pressure.

Well, at least some of the lines. The Penguins’ mishmash fourth line didn’t have much impact. Sullivan juggled the lines in the second period and again in the third before shortening the bench.

You may have seen the Penguins set up in the 1-2-2 in the third period of a tie game. It was nearly a disaster. The team was on their heels, and the obvious attempt (rightly so) to slow the game made the Penguins sitting ducks. Hopefully, they don’t abandon the tactic, but they were exceedingly passive, and, according to NaturalStatTrick.com, they yielded six scoring chances in the third period but gained just one.

Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card

Team: C+

They won. They showed some moxy and gritted their teeth to an important win, in large part thanks to Crosby. The power play clicked–again, thanks in part to Sidney Crosby.

The Evgeni Malkin line seemed to possess the puck and even get good offensive zone time, but it’s hard to circle a great chance. The third line had ebbs and flows. And the defensemen were a bit of a mess.

Take the two points, and say thank you. It was a make-good for some games the Penguins played well but lost.

Erik Karlsson: D

I thought it was one of Karlsson’s roughest games as a Penguin. His first-period turnovers were brutal. He was roasted in the defensive zone a couple of times, too. And yet, he had two points (0-2-2).

Sidney Crosby: A+

Some of you get mad when I don’t grade the obvious stars. Crosby was brilliant. He was tough on his skates. He backchecked hard in the first period, and he attacked throughout the game. He was next level. To recount the number of plays he made in the offensive zone would take pages. He earned his three points.

He suckered defenseman Kaiden Guhle on the Penguins’ first goal. There’s no other way to put it- Crosby fooled the defenseman and then intercepted the breakout.

“They weren’t really set up, so he didn’t really have a lot of help. He had his partner in the corner, and sometimes you got to keep them guessing a little bit,” Crosby said. “I think most teams get used to how teams forecheck and stuff. So you time (it), you try to keep them honest. Most times, it doesn’t work and I’m just chasing. But you know, I got lucky.”

It’s not lucky when the fox gets in the henhouse.

Now, some middle-of-the-road grades.

Kris Letang: B-

So much good, but several rough moments, too. It was hard to average all of the moments. There were three circled moments that nearly cost the Penguins, but several more in which he bailed them out.

Vinnie Hinostroza: ??

The stats show a player who is all over the ice and makes an impact. He had five shots, three hits, and three takeaways. There’s no doubt he’s noticeable when he’s on the ice, but when Sullivan pairs him with Crosby, it sometimes seems like there’s not enough puck for Crosby, and Hinostroza isn’t creating merely shooting.

Hinostroza/O’Connor-Eller-Zohorna: B+

They didn’t get a goal, but they played their best game in some time. The line created several high-danger chances. Zohorna played with the type of burst he needs to show more often. They played with the puck in the offensive zone, and Eller had a couple of good looks.

The two iterations outshot their Habs counterparts 7-1 and outchanced them 6-1.

Alex Nedeljkovic: B+

That was a softy he allowed to Sean Monahan. He settled. He got stronger.

“It would be really easy to come back out for the second and kind of be a little shaky and a little wobbly after that,” Nedeljkovic said. So, to get a couple of saves under my belt to start the period there it’s just a confidence booster at that point. And, like smooth sailing, thankfully, after that.

After a lot of questions, the Penguins goalies are the backbone of the team. Between Tristan Jarry, Nedeljkovic, and Magnus Hellberg, the Penguins have gotten far more superior goaltending performances than not.