OTTAWA — On some level, Sidney Crosby understood the challenges that come with trying to captain a team to a second consecutive Stanley Cup. Having already gone through it once, he grasped that his team would need luck. The Pittsburgh Penguins would need bounces. They’d have to have a singular game-by-game focus, something this group does exceedingly well.
Still, even in understanding all of that, the reality is setting in as to just how hard it is to pull off a championship run in back-to-back years, with his banged-up team now down 2-1 in the Eastern Conference finals heading into Friday’s Game 4 against the Ottawa Senators.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Crosby said. “Definitely a greater appreciation for it now.”
Aside from the luck and the bounces and all the things that influence a hockey game outside of skill, determination and timely saves, the grind appears to be dangerously close to catching up to Crosby and his Penguins.
The news conferences of Penguins coach Mike Sullivan have turned into triage reports, with new names added daily to the injury list. As the depth scoring and defensive health have disintegrated, more of the burden has fallen onto stars Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to generate the offense on their own.
Each has taken turns scoring in this series but not frequently enough to keep up with the more balanced (and healthy) Senators attack in this series, where they’ve been outscored 7-2.
Crosby’s goal in Wednesday’s 5-1 loss was his first since scoring twice in Game 1 against the Washington Capitals on April 27. He hasn’t scored an even-strength goal since returning from the concussion suffered in Game 3 against the Capitals. He’s a minus-4 so far against the Senators, just one round after finishing a plus-4 against the Capitals.
Those in the game have a couple of theories as to why it has become much harder for Crosby to score as these playoffs have progressed.
The first is that a banged-up Penguins defense has cut down on offense Crosby and his line can produce in transition. The odd-man rushes that were there earlier just haven’t existed against the Senators and really didn’t exist as the series against the Capitals progressed.
“When you don’t have your top defensemen [and instead] guys like Chad Ruhwedel and Ian Cole, they’re not creating turnovers,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “They’re more worried about, ‘Let’s not get scored on.’ ”
That combined with the fact the Senators play a system that just isn’t going to allow too much offense on the rush means Crosby and his linemates will have to generate in other areas at even strength.
“He will have to do it from the corners instead of the rush because Ottawa doesn’t give you a rush game,” one assistant coach said via text.
The other challenge heading into Game 4 is that Crosby probably will see another steady dose of standout defenseman Erik Karlsson because Senators coach Guy Boucher has more control over matchups at home. Plus, Karlsson plays half the game.
In Game 3, Crosby played 77 percent of his even-strength ice time against Karlsson, according to shiftchart.com. It was an overlap of 12:03 at even strength.
“When you have a guy like Karlsson jumping into the play, and the havoc it creates when they have scoring chances, it creates offensive-zone time,” the scout said. “When Karlsson is playing against top guys like Crosby, that means Sid has to come back and stop and play defense half a shift.”
And that can wear a player down.
“You can’t play as long when you don’t have the puck,” the scout said. “It’s weird. It’s a psychological thing.”
According to the analytics website Corsica.hockey, Crosby’s line with Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary is losing the possession battle in the playoffs. That trio is controlling 48.5 percent of the shot attempts at even strength. The three have generated 18 scoring chances while allowing 22.
The coach noted that Guentzel has had “a ton” of chances that haven’t gone in, chances that could very well start going in if they continue to happen. But he also thought Crosby’s game has changed slightly since returning from the concussion.
“He has not gone to the net much since the injury,” he said.
“At this point in the year, no one is themselves,” the scout said. “You’re playing your 100th game, you’re banged up, you’re sore, you’re tired. That’s even if you’ve had no injuries. I think he’s a little hesitant.”
The Penguins have reached other critical points in the playoffs during this run, most notably following an ugly Game 6 against the Capitals. The one thought from those who knew Crosby best was to never bet against him in a big moment. They were proven correct.
Crosby has another crucial moment coming up in Game 4, with the Penguins’ repeat hopes moving closer to extinction as they trail in a series for the first time all postseason. History suggests we’ll see one of Crosby’s better games.
“I know Sid puts a lot on himself to put pucks in the net and carry the team. I know it weighs on him when he’s not scoring. That’s because he wants to win and that’s because he cares about the group,” teammate Matt Cullen said Thursday. “We’re talking about one of the best players to ever play the game. On top of that, he’s a guy who raises his level when the stakes are highest. We know he’s going to be there.”