Michael Traikos | February 8, 2016
Sidney Crosby (87) celebrates his goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Anaheim Ducks in Pittsburgh, Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. (USA Today Sports)
Jim Rutherford sneezed into the phone and then excused himself to blow his nose. The Pittsburgh Penguins general manager said he was at home battling a cold. Hopefully, he said, it was just a 24-hour bug.
His team, however, has it far worse.
In the last two weeks or so, five players have come down with serious injuries. Forwards Nick Bonino (hand), Beau Bennett (upper body) and Eric Fehr (lower body) are not expected to be back in the lineup for at least another month, defenceman David Warsofsky is out indefinitely with a concussion and Evgeni Malkin has already missed two games because of something with his knee.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Rutherford said, “but I know he’s not playing (on Monday night).”
The one guy who was playing against the Anaheim Ducks was Sidney Crosby. And because of that, Rutherford’s spirits were up.
After a slow start, where Crosby managed five points in October, had a minus-11 rating in November and even had some questioning whether he belonged on Canada’s World Cup roster, the two-time league MVP has returned to his old self.
On Monday morning, Crosby was named the NHL’s first star of the week after scoring five goals and eight points in three games. In Monday’s 6-2 win over Anaheim, Crosby had two goals and two assists. In his 11-game point streak, he has 12 goals and 22 points. And with 53 points in 51 games, he is once again among the top 10 in league scoring.
Simply put: Crosby is back. And the rest of the league is on notice.
“A lot of people will judge him just on his points,” Rutherford said. “But the last month or two, I really think he’s been the best complete player in the league, which is not a big statement because he is the best player in the league. He has been the best player for a while and he will be for quite a while going forward.
“He can just put the team on his back and take it.”
This no longer looks like the same team that couldn’t score on the power play, couldn’t string together more than two wins in a row and ended up firing the head coach in early December after stumbling out of the gate with a 15-10-2 record. With Mike Sullivan behind the bench and Crosby leading the offence, the Penguins have two regulation losses in their last 12 games.
They are still a team that is in a dogfight to qualify for the playoffs, a team that is hampered by some serious injury concerns. But they are also a team with the best player in the league right now — and that includes NHL leading scorer Patrick Kane, whose grasp on the Hart Trophy might not be as secure as it was a month ago.
“Anybody who’s close to him is not surprised,” said Rutherford. “When you talk about resurgence, he’s actually played well all year. It’s just now the points are coming at a rapid pace.”
Since Jan. 1, Crosby has 26 points in 15 games. During that same span, Kane has 20 points in 17 games.
Still, Kane had a cozy 17-point lead on the next-highest scorer and sat 27 points up on Crosby. Barring an injury to the Chicago Blackhawks forward or a Lemieux-like finish by the Penguins star, it looks like Crosby will not close that gap.
But he could make it interesting.
You do not necessarily have to win the scoring title to win league MVP. Ovechkin tied for third in scoring with four fewer points than Marty St. Louis in 2012-13, but won the Hart Trophy because of a second-half surge where he scored 41 points in 29 games (he had 15 points in his first 19 games).
If anything, Crosby’s play in the last two months could mean the Hart Trophy is no longer a one-man race.
It’s not just Crosby who has woken up. Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang has 19 points in his last 13 games (he scored 19 points in his first 28 games), while Phil Kessel has 12 points in his last 14 games (he scored 21 points in his first 37 games).
“You go through a coaching change and everyone has to prove themselves,” Crosby told the Penguins website. “Everyone kind of starts fresh. I think I feel like I was in the same boat. I wanted to make sure I was personally better. As a group, we’ve been better. When the team’s playing well, I think individually everybody benefits.”
Maybe it was the coaching change or a couple of player moves, such as adding Carl Hagelin and splitting Crosby from Kessel. Maybe it was a matter of time before things started to click and luck turned in their favour. Maybe it was all of those things or none of them.
Whatever the case, Crosby is back. And the Penguins just might be as well.
Five leading candidates for NHL MVP
Sidney Crosby might be making a second-half push for the Hart Trophy, but the Pittsburgh Penguins captain has plenty of company. Here are five players who could win the league MVP:
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
No one had a better first-half to the season than Kane, who not only leads the NHL in scoring with 32 goals and 76 points in 56 games, but also has a comfortable 17-point lead on the next-highest scorer. While Kane has gone nine games without a point, he has had seven games where he scored three or more points. It’s difficult to say the Blackhawks would be lost without him, because they are such a deep team. But they certainly wouldn’t be as much fun to watch.
Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars
Benn might have been an unlikely winner of last year’s Art Ross Trophy. But with 59 points (tied for second) and 28 goals (tied for third), he is showing that his ability to produce was no fluke. The Stars captain is actually on pace for more points (91) than he scored last season (87), but it is his team’s success that is getting Benn recognition for league MVP. Despite Benn’s production, Dallas missed the playoffs last season. But this year, the Stars have the second-most points in the Western Conference.
Sanford Myers/Getty Images
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
While Holtby is not having the dominant type of season that Carey Price had last year, he is not far off. The Capitals goaltender, who is ranked fifth with a 2.06 goals-against average, is tied for sixth with a .929 save percentage and leads all goalies with 33 wins in just 42 games played. With 31 games remaining, he has a realistic chance at breaking Martin Brodeur’s 2006-07 record of 48 wins in a season. He also has Washington leading the Eastern Conference with 80 points — 12 more than the next-highest team heading into Monday night.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
Say what you will about his play in the defensive zone, but Karlsson is once again putting up unreal offensive points. Heading into Monday night he was tied for second with Benn in scoring with 59 points — the last defenceman to finish second overall was Paul Coffey in 1983-84 — and led all players with 48 assists and average ice time (28 minutes and 48 seconds per game). Whether that gets him a third Norris Trophy is still up for debate. But on a team with just one 20 goal-scorer, his ability to generate offence has been jaw-dropping.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin leads the team in goals with 30, but it is Kuznetsov who is Washington’s new scoring leader. With 53 points in 51 games, the 23-year-old is having a breakout season in what is only his second full year in the league. He is tied with a league-high plus-25 rating, is third in assists (38) and is fifth in scoring (53 points). And it appears he is getting better as the season goes on. After a slow December, where he scored seven points in 14 games, Kuznetsov has 20 points in the last 14 games.
Michael Traikos, Postmedia News