Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby prepares to take a face-off during the second period of Game 4 in an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinals against the Washington Capitals in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (Gene Puskar/AP)
Sidney Crosby knows where to go to get the best of the Washington Capitals.
On Wednesday night, he went there and helped push his generational rival to the edge of elimination.
Front of the net.
Front of the goalie.
That is where Crosby was on the Penguins' first and last goals in a 3-2 overtime victory atConsol Energy Center. He wasn't setting a screen, just occupying the attention of Capitals skaters and drawing a look from goalie Braden Holtby.
A split second is a lifetime in the NHL.
For the Penguins, the couple of split seconds Crosby distracted Holtby were all defenseman Trevor Daley and winger Patric Hornqvist needed to score the biggest goals of the showcase series in these Stanley Cup playoffs.
Daley's answered the Capitals' fluky first goal early in the opening period. Hornqvist's ended Game 4 early in overtime.
“Sudden death, that's what it feels like,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.
He wasn't alluding to a bigger picture, but the Penguins can make it seem that way. With a win in Game 5 at Verizon Center on Saturday night, the Penguins would bring to a shocking, sudden end the season of the best club in the NHL's regular season.
If that is how it goes, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin will have gone 0 for 2 against Crosby in postseason showdowns. He'll also have failed to reach the Eastern Conference final.
To lay another potential postseason failure at the skates of Ovechkin would not be fair. But hockey is cruelest for the superstars who haven't won the Cup.
Heck, it can be brutal for the superstars who have won it.
Crosby claimed Lord Stanley's silver chalice in 2009, and all he's done since (when healthy) is win or contend for MVPs and scoring titles. Still, even critics in the one NHL city where he is truly revered have wondered when he would deliver a playoff moment like the ones he has produced for Canada's Olympic teams.
On Wednesday morning, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan fielded questions about Crosby's alleged struggles in Round 2.
Crosby had not recorded a point against the Capitals. He had not scored a goal since Game 4 against the Rangers in Round 1.
What was wrong with Sid?
Not one darn thing was wrong, and to assess his performance only by points was to miss his brilliance. As he had in the 2009 Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings, Crosby was doing all of the hard work against the Capitals' best offensive and top defensive pairing.
Trotz, a reputable defensive coach, acknowledged the Capitals had a plan to limit Crosby offensively. It involved gaining “inside position, making him play defense and limiting his time and space.”
However, a concession that Trotz offered Wednesday morning proved prophetic.
“Make him play in tight areas,” Trotz said of Crosby. “But he's really good in the tight areas.”
Usually in the playoffs, the tightest area is the contested ice near a goalie's crease. In this physical, bruising and contentious series, any area of ice has been tough for players on either club to occupy.
Crosby, though, knew that one area above all was where he had to go in what figured to be a series-shaping Game 4.
He went there whenever he could, including a few minutes after leaving the game in the third period. Ovechkin had slashed his right hand. Crosby was visibly frustrated as he walked from the Penguins bench to the medical room.
Upon returning, he skated even more purposefully than he had earlier in Game 4. With the score tied 2-2 late in regulation, he skated to the slot and battled near the Capitals net before taking a stick to the face from defenseman Karl Alzner.
A Penguins power-play goal could have been considered a form of justice.
But the perfect ending for the biggest win in years — and most impressive because the Penguins played without their top defensive pairing and a top-six winger — was a goal Crosby neither scored nor set up.
Instead, he was where a captain goes. It was where Crosby went while scoring eight goals and recording 13 points seven years ago against the Capitals.
Crosby was near the net.
And as a result, the Penguins are close to eliminating the Capitals.