Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins hits the goal post against Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators early in the first period in Game Five of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG PAINTS Arena on June 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — Someone asked P.K. Subban if it was getting personal between him and Sidney Crosby, after he taunted Crosby in Nashville, after Crosby bashed his head into the ice repeatedly here in Pittsburgh, after the Penguins destroyed Nashville 6-0 in Game 5 to take a three games to two lead in the Stanley Cup final. Subban said, simply, “It’s hockey, man. Just hockey.”
He was right, and there is nobody in the world who plays hockey like Sidney Crosby. Connor McDavid will pass him in the game’s firmament; McDavid is a comet, growing brighter. But Crosby is the best big-game player in the world, and the best total player in the world, and he can smell blood at the Stanley Cup final. He is here, now.
“I love and am just so impressed how he steps up when his team needs him the most,” said Penguins forward Matt Cullen. “You know, he’s one of those unique players that has that sense when it’s time to raise the level, and he’s one of the very few that can raise their level that high. Seeing the way that he started the game tonight, and just took the team on his shoulders and said, follow me, it’s pretty fun to see, it’s fun to be a part of.”
Crosby controlled Game 5 from the start. It took less than a minute for Crosby to attack the Predators zone, walk around Nashville’s Ryan Ellis, and hit the post after Ellis jumped on board and tried to grab on like he was trying to catch a passing horse. Crosby assisted on the ensuing power-play goal: a Justin Schultz point shot that caught a fraction of a stick and passed through two separate five-holes.
And from there, Pittsburgh’s energy was awesome. Bryan Rust made it 2-0 on a backhand; Evgeni Malkin made it 3-0 after one period on a patient pass from Phil Kessel. Crosby controlled an entire shift to make it 4-0 in the second — driving through the neutral zone, one hand on his stick, passing to Conor Sheary for a great chance, collecting Sheary’s missed pass to Jake Guentzel, and slipping a how-did-he-see-him pass to Sheary for Pittsburgh’s fourth goal. Good golly.
Kessel got the fifth goal — shot from the slot, one day after Malkin had predicted he would score in Game 5 — and Ron Hainsey a sixth, from Malkin. Blowout.
And it was Crosby who led them, just as he did in Game 4, but without help. This time, he spilled all over: in the first period he and P.K. Subban, who goofed around with that bad-breath-Listerine stuff in Nashville, tangled behind the net and went down, and there were bad feelings: Subban was wrapped around his leg, but Crosby still pushed down on Subban’s helmet, and even threw rabbit punches, trying to grind his former Olympic teammate’s head into the ice. Maybe Crosby didn’t appreciate the recent nonsense, but they have a long history, those two. They’ve been jousting for a long time.
“He lost his stick and he was doing some UFC move on my foot,” said Crosby. “So I don’t know what he was trying to do. But I was trying to get out of there.”
“It’s up to the official to call it,” said Subban. “If they don’t, then you just got to move forward.”
P.K. Subban #76 of the Nashville Predators and Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins fight in the first period in Game Five of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG PAINTS Arena on June 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
They didn’t. Crosby even threw a water bottle on the ice after what the Penguins considered a missed call, but that was just a blooper — as he put it, “I made a gesture and it came flying out of my hand. I didn’t try to throw it. I know it ends up on the ice but I wouldn’t start throwing water bottles at this point. I know it looks bad, but I’m a righty and I’ve got a better arm than that.”
In his defence, Crosby has put up with as much crap as any player of his generation for over a decade, and sometimes he lashes back. Some people will never love him because he complains, or because of stuff like this. He has never been fully loved in hockey, and that’s a shame.
Whatever people’s feelings, he is the greatest player of his generation and one of the greatest of all time, and is playing monster hockey when it is needed most. This has been a weirdly uneven series, and it got ugly late — there were fights out of reflexive dislike and obligation: even Malkin fought for the second fight of the series, to complete a Gordie Howe hat trick for him. Message-sending makes no real difference, but they do it anyway.
If you want a message, it’s this: Going into Game 5, this series was a coin flip in progress: Nashville dominated two games and lost, Nashville dominated one game and won, Nashville and Pittsburgh exchanged chances and Nashville won. Someone was facing elimination after Game 5. That was just math.
And then Sidney Crosby played out of his mind, in more ways than one. He led, and Pittsburgh followed, and they blew Nashville’s doors off. The Predators have been a better team at home, in that howling barn: goaltender Pekka Rinne has been especially better there. Pittsburgh beat Ottawa 7-0 in Game 5 here in the conference final, and found themselves in Game 7 double OT a few days later.
But Pittsburgh’s big guns are firing now, and the Penguins may have figured out how to cover for their makeshift defence for a fourth straight series. Nashville ran over Pittsburgh in the first three games — in the last two, the Penguins have executed cleaner breakouts, avoided long shifts in their own zone, evened the playing field. They did it against Washington and Ottawa, too. They figure teams out.
“I think the last two games we have just played better,” said Cullen. “I don’t think we played to our level the last few, and I don’t think it was anything systematic; I think it was that we didn’t win many battles in the first couple games, and in the last couple games our battle level elevated, and because of that we had the puck more, and were able to generate more offensive chances.”
“I thought it was the best game we’ve played in this series,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan.
And if this becomes an even series possession-wise, which team has the finishers? It was Crosby’s 56th multi-point playoff game: he tied Paul Coffey and Glenn Anderson, and only trails Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky. As Cullen puts it, “There’s a lot of competitive guys, but ... when he senses the opportunity, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen, the way he steps up and raises his level. He just gets to a completely different level.”
“In my short time with Sid, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more committed, more determined.”
Crosby will turn 30 this summer. Of that monster first shift he said, “It just kind of happened.” But it didn’t just happen: it was the result of a lifetime of doing the right things, day after day, mining his talent with a ruthless focus that never seems to flag, never seems to go away.
“No stage is too big for him,” said Sullivan. “You can see his desire in his day-to-day approach. What I’ve really grown to admire and respect about Sid is not only is he a talented player, because there’s a lot of talented players. I just think he has such a drive to be the best. And he’s willing to do what it takes. He doesn’t just show up at the rink and put his equipment on. He controls everything within his power to be the very best.”
“He controls his diet. He lives the right way. His off-ice habits are exceptional. He sets such an example for the rest of the group on how to control what you can to give yourself every chance to be successful. I saw it early on: he has so much care for this organization and trying to help his team win, and he happens to be an ultratalented guy. But what separates him is his drive. I don’t know if I’ve ever been around an athlete — not just a hockey player, but an athlete — that is as driven as Sid is.”
He is nearly 30, but he can still cut through a game like a saw. The series has tipped towards Pittsburgh and can end as early as Sunday, and Sidney Crosby put it there.