PITTSBURGH – In three months’ time, Sidney Crosby has won an Olympic gold medal with an overtime goal and returned the Pittsburgh Penguins to an enviable position in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
A gifted player previously known as a playmaker first and a scorer second tied for his first NHL goal-scoring championship. He also is one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy, an award he’s already won once.
What he hasn’t done is take much time off. Until now.
When his Pittsburgh Penguins open their Eastern Conference semifinal series against surprising Montreal on Friday night, Crosby will be coming off a six-day break. It’s the most time off he’s enjoyed since training camp began in September, or three months to the day since the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.
Considering he’s played 38 games, counting the Olympics, during the past 2½ months, it must seem like a month off.
Considering the Penguins will play their 300th game in three seasons in Game 4 against the Canadians, it’s the kind of break Crosby may not see again until the playoffs end.
So what did he do during his much-needed time off?
He practised, of course.
“It was good. I don’t think anybody was complaining about it,” Crosby said Thursday. “It’s great to get practice time, I really like to practice and work on skills and go over details. When you get to the playoffs, that’s so important, the details of the game.”
Practising for 60-plus minutes isn’t the same as playing a 100 minutes-plus game, as the Penguins did in losing Game 5 of their first-round series against Ottawa. The Penguins came back to win Game 6 and give Crosby some of the time off he’s wanted since the demanding and fatiguing two-week Olympic tournament.
While the Olympics couldn’t have ended any better for Crosby, the demands on his time during and after the games may have led to his worst slump of the season. Tired physically and spent emotionally, Crosby scored three goals in his next 13 games – two in one game. The stretch included seven consecutive games without a goal.
Still, the 22-year-old Crosby came back to tie Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay for the goal-scoring title by getting four goals in his final four regular-season games. He followed that up with five goals and 14 points in six games against Ottawa.
While the NHL’s other big star, Alex Ovechkin, is finished early in the playoffs once again, Crosby looks like he might only be beginning.
“The intangibles he brings to the rink and that he brings to our team in a leadership capacity are becoming more and more evident,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He gets better in certain areas.”
The Penguins are hoping he will be better still against Montreal now that he’s finally got nearly a week off without a game.
Regardless, it may be difficult for Crosby to play much better than he did during the Penguins’ 2-1 victory in Game 2 against Ottawa. He scored a goal, made an exceptional pass to set up Kris Letang’s game-winner and, with his best Marc-Andre Fleury impersonation, slid across the goal line to punch away an Anton Volchenkov shot before it could go into the net.
That game, and the effort Crosby expended to win it, illustrates why the Penguins may have a realistic chance of becoming the first NHL team to reach the Stanley Cup finals in three consecutive seasons since Edmonton in 1983-85.
With No. 1 Washington, No. 2 New Jersey and No. 3 Buffalo already bounced from the playoffs, the Penguins own home-ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“We’re at home and it’s an opportunity that we didn’t think we’d have,” Crosby said. “We want to take advantage of it, start the series well. They’re coming off a game of desperation and are going to be in that mode, and we have to make sure we’re there, too.”
The Penguins expect Crosby to be there.
Even after leading them to the Stanley Cup finals the past two seasons, Crosby came back with perhaps the best all-around season of his five in the NHL. He upped his goals from 33 a season ago to 51 and greatly improved on face-offs, previously one of the few deficiencies in his game.
“I tried to work on those things, but I didn’t do it for any other reason than to try to improve and try to help the team as much as I could,” Crosby said. “I don’t think that just because you work in those areas, you’re always going to get results, especially immediately. But it was nice to get them. It’s always good to be rewarded for hard work.”
Crosby will find out now if getting rewarded with nearly a week off will be what he needs to take the Penguins on another extended playoff run.
“It’s impossible to stop him, especially every night,” Senators coach Cory Clouston said.