By the middle of the third period Thursday night, Sidney Crosby finally got his first shot on goal. Nevermind that he already had two assists and had orchestrated the Penguins attack like a maestro conducting Beethoven’s Fifth. Nevermind that Crosby plays every shift and every game from his end wall to the opponent’s end wall.
Crosby notched a pair of assists in a breather for the Penguins. The Buffalo Sabres went meekly as the Penguins engine began to churn and Buffalo has been shutout in three straight games. That doesn’t mean Crosby didn’t play hard. Just as he was ever present in the Penguins titanic battles with Washington and Boston.
Just as he was with the Penguins home-and-home against Columbus, and most every other game.
“His game is so mature. He knows what it takes to win. He values all aspects of his game, both offensively and defensively,” Sullivan said before struggling to find a compliment worthy of Crosby. “That I think…That this team uses…He…He’s the heartbeat.”
It may seem like stating the obvious but for a coach to admit a player is the heartbeat of the team is far more than admitting he’s good at hockey or simply a leader. The heartbeat of a team is as important as the leading scorer.
And it just so happens that Crosby is both. After two more points Thursday night, Crosby has 92 points (33g, 59a) this season. He’s fourth in the NHL scoring race and figures to surpass 100 points for the first time 2013-14.
In a season beset by strife, roster turnover, and struggles, Crosby has been the Penguins constant. When the Penguins couldn’t score 5v5 goals, Crosby generated that offense. When the Penguins en masse abandoned their defensive responsibilities because simply trying to outscore the opponent is more fun than playing honest hockey, Crosby backchecked harder.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he’s at the top of his game right now. He’s such a big part of this team,” Sullivan said. “We rely on him so much at both ends of the rink. He’s competing every bit as hard without the puck as he is with the puck.”
“That’s why I’ve said on a number of occasions, he’s the best 200-foot player in the game.”
Indeed there are few coaches able to praise a player so effusively and a player so worthy of it. The Penguins have won nine of the last 13 games and are 9-2-2 in that span. After battling for a playoff spot in February and creating some doubt about their long term future, the Penguins have opened separation between themselves and the first team out of the playoffs–now the Montreal Canadiens. The cushion has grown to six points over both Montreal and Columbus.
There are simultaneous pushes going on–some want Crosby to win the Selke award for the best defensive forward. Others want Crosby for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. To our knowledge, our Shelly Anderson was the first to pose the question–Why not both? And she asked Sid, too.
At the most important juncture of the season and in the most critical time of year, Crosby has 19 points (8g, 11a) in his last 10 games. IN his last 17 games, Crosby has 31 points (10g, 21a). That near two-points-per-game pace is what separates Crosby from almost everyone else.
“I think this is his favorite time of year. He’s shown an ability to elevate his game when the stakes are the highest and he plays his best on the biggest stage,” Sullivan said. “He’s done it time and time again.”
If Crosby continues this torrid pace, that stage figures to keep growing. We’ve seen this before.