Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his goal against the Ottawa Senators during second period of NHL action at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, April 05, 2016.JEAN LEVAC
Sidney Crosby isn’t a fan of hearing about a “slump” to describe a struggling player.
“That’s not a word I like to use a lot,” says Crosby, sitting in the same dressing room stall used by Wayne Gretzky for his final NHL game in Canada, with the New York Rangers against the Senators in April 1999.
Sid the Kid is not only back in Ottawa, but back in his usual place among the NHL’s top scorers.
Others were using the word “slump” — and worse — to describe Crosby’s start to the season. He had just nine points, including two goals, in his first 18 games. Worse, he just looked off, missing nets and playing on the periphery. Some speculated that he was still suffering the after-effects of a concussion from a few years ago. Others wondered if he was playing through some new injury.
They wonder no more. At the drop of the puck at the Canadian Tire Centre on Tuesday, Crosby had 26 points in his previous 19 games for the surging Pittsburgh Penguins, the fourth team this season to reach 100 points in the standings. When he chipped a backhand past Andrew Hammond, late in the second period, it was Crosby’s 34th of the season. He later added an empty-netter in the third for his 35th.
Crosby didn’t use injuries as an excuse for his rough early months and freely admitted he needed to improve.
“Definitely, I’m playing better than at the start,” Crosby says. “I don’t think there was too much going on there as far as creating. I don’t think I was doing enough. With the team success you get better but there’s no doubt I need to be better than I was at the start of the season.”
He is, and has been, better. But how different does the game feel for a player struggling versus one in the “zone” as a hot player is often said to be.
“It’s definitely a confidence thing,” Crosby says. “Your confidence isn’t there sometimes and it can be for a lot of different reasons. Personally, if I’m just speaking on my own behalf, when the chances are there, you still have that confidence. Regardless of them going in or not, you feel like eventually they will if you’re getting them (chances) in bunches. So for me that’s always a big thing.
“And if they’re going in, you’re definitely aware of it,” he says. “You’re probably shooting more. It feels like your shot is on — anything around the net you feel you have more time. I think that’s just a confidence thing but how you get to that point is different for everybody.”
It’s easy to dismiss 2015-16 as a bad season in Ottawa and good in Pittsburgh, but it was only in the second half that the separation came.
Like the Senators, the Penguins could have been in real danger of missing the playoffs. As recently as Jan. 16, a few days after Mike Johnston was fired as head coach, Pittsburgh was 12th in the conference, looking up at Ottawa in 10th place. The Senators were one point ahead of the Penguins in an Eastern Conference standings that resembled rush hour on the Queensway.
The Senators started Tuesday’s game so far behind the Penguins (19 points), it’s hard to imagine Ottawa could have pulled to within a point of Pittsburgh when they met on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2.
The Penguins won a wild game at home, 6-5 over the Senators, extended the gap to five points and didn’t look back. It hasn’t seemed to matter that the Penguins have missed that “other” superstar forward, Evgeni Malkin, for two long stretches, totalling 23 games, including the past 13 straight.
With Crosby at the top of his game and defenceman Kris Letang finally healthy, Pittsburgh has even survived the recent loss of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a concussion.
Rookie Matt Murray has filled in nicely with seven wins in his 10 starts before Ottawa, where he didn’t get a ton of help from a Penguins team that seemed disinterested at times. Dangerous at others.
Having won 12 of their previous 13 games, the Penguins could have been excused for not being all that motivated.
New head coach Mike Sullivan deserves credit for keeping his group focused, through injuries and the introduction of several rookies onto the roster. Sullivan credits his team for playing “hard and smart,” a handy one-two punch.
“When you add the skill level of our group, it allows us to get the results we’ve had the last little while,” Sullivan says.
Crosby couldn’t have expected to escape Canada without being asked about the plight of Canadian teams, missing the Stanley Cup playoffs en masse for the first time since 1970.
“I’m sure it’s not easy not seeing your favourite team in the playoffs or not being able to cheer for them at this time of year,” Crosby said. “But there’s not much you can do. It’s competitive … that’s the way it’s worked out this year but I don’t see that being something that happens very frequently.”