Praise be the hockey gods, for they have blessed the Pittsburgh Penguins almost constantly since the arrival of Mario Lemieux in 1984.
Those blessings have manifested themselves in the form of scoring titles, MVP trophies and ultimately Stanley Cup Championships. Oh, yeah, they also kept the Penguins in Pittsburgh when Lemieux purchased the team out of bankruptcy in 1999.
The hockey ministry that Lemieux started 34 years ago has indoctrinated many followers over the years and those zealots keep coming back due to those accomplishments.
Though Lemieux has moved on to the owner’s box, he left his flock in the hands of Sidney Crosby, who has looked just as magical as Le Magnifique over the course of his career. He’s picked up individual awards, three Stanley Cups and given Lemieux an amazing return on investment. Crosby’s feats have kept butts in the seats not only in Pittsburgh, but around the league, and his latest came Tuesday in Edmonton.
The game against the Oilers was the fifth head-to-head battle between Crosby and Connor McDavid. McDavid’s team has underachieved over the years, but he is universally looked at as the best player in the league. The 21-year-old has already won two scoring titles, one MVP and two Ted Lindsay Awards.
McDavid has never beaten Crosby in one of these head-to-head games, but he outscored him 7-1. Winning clearly didn’t sway the masses all that much because pundits around the league gushed over the points and have long talked about Crosby passing the torch to McDavid in these games.
Crosby changed all of that when he scored a spectacular goal to clinch a 6-5 win for his team in overtime with McDavid on the ice.
The Penguins captain carried the puck across the Edmonton zone and down the left wing, where he promptly looped below the goal line before cutting towards the net. He stick-handled around Oilers forward Ryan Strome, who fell down in the process, slid past defenseman Darnell Nurse with another deft move, before gliding across the crease in front of goaltender Cam Talbot and flicked a backhand shot past him for the winner.
McDavid was in the vicinity, but looked just as mesmerized as the rest of the viewing public.
“Yeah, it was a beautiful play, beautiful goal,” he said via Oilers TV postgame. “Not much you could do there.”
Defenseman Jack Johnson picked up the primary assist on the goal and was blown away by what he saw.
“That was spectacular,” he said via the Penguins Radio Network. “Special players do special things. He took it into his own hands in overtime and won it for us.”
It was his second goal of the game. He scored on a deflection just outside of the goal crease during a first period power play to open scoring. The goals were great, but what might have been even more impressive was his work in the faceoff circle. Crosby won 80 percent of his draws, going 16-4.
McDavid finished the night with two points (1G-1A) and 8 shots, but won only 36 percent (5-9) of his faceoffs, winning only three of 11 against Crosby.
Crosby started the season with five assists in his first six games, which fostered talk about McDavid passing him by. This early season meeting helped the conversation grow. It would be easy to think that the chatter was a motivating factor in what played out on Tuesday, but Penguins coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t think so.
“He’s just really a driven guy,” Mike Sullivan said. “He doesn’t really get caught up in a lot of the storylines from game to game or regardless of who we play. He’s just a real good player that tries to be the best that he can be.”
Regardless of that take, Crosby took his game to another level and helped push his team’s record to 4-1-2. He also sent a message to everyone in the hockey world that he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and is still one of the best players in the league – maybe even its best.
That message was received loud and clear by sometimes linemate Patric Hornqvist, who showed his usual fiery passion while discussing Crosby.
“I think he showed tonight that he’s the best player in the world. He’s always showing up when you guys are saying he’s not the best anymore. Then, he does that. Scores probably the nicest goal in his whole career. It says a lot.”
Sprong hasn’t sprung
This was supposed to be the year of Daniel Sprong. General manager Jim Rutherford was very clear in stating that the young forward would be on the Penguins roster this season and he’s held true to that word, but he’s not thriving.
Sprong started camp on Crosby’s wing, but has fallen into fourth line duty and finds himself on the bench quite a bit. He skated a career-low 3:37 on Tuesday, has three assists, a minus-3 and three shots in seven games and has clearly fallen out of favor with his coach.
Forward Domink Simon was also used sparingly late in the game against the Oilers, which forced Sullivan to address the situation.
“We’re trying to put guys on the ice that give us the best chance to have success in certain situations. And so, the way the schedule has unfolded to this point, there have been times where we have shortened the bench,” he said. “It’s not always our intent going into games but certainly performance has some influence on the decisions the coaches make.”
Lineup versus Calgary
Matt Murray will make his third straight start. He’s gone 3-1-0 with a 3.95 GAA, .893 save percentage and one shutout on the season.
Based on news out of the Penguins’ morning skate it appears that center Derek Grant make his season debut, while Sprong will exit the lineup. Defenseman Juuso Riikola also appears to be coming out of the lineup. He was the last man skating after all others retired to the locker room.