By Sidney Mahan (@PuckSniper_3)
When you’re a superstar, you’re expected to step up big in clutch moments. You’re expected (if you’re a forward) to have your name dominating the scoresheet. You’re expected to be the guy who’s worth a couple of points every game. Those expectations are the burden of stardom in the NHL. And it’s a burden that has been taken on by the two crown jewels of Pittsburgh hockey in this Penguins era, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The playoffs are especially stressful times for the stars when it comes to being expected to put up points. That’s where Crosby and Malkin have really taken some heat sometimes in recent years. Think back to the last time the Penguins were in the Conference Final, three years ago, where they ended up being swept by the Boston Bruins. Both Crosby and Malkin went pointless in a series where the Penguins scored a total of two goals in their last four games of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. These two guys are already two of the first people to take the blame for any struggles the team has, but especially when the Penguins’ numerous playoff disappointments in recent years coincides with a trending lack of playoff production by the team’s stars, the criticism reaches new levels.
Look, it’s simple. When 87 and 71 score, the Penguins are a better team. Depth and secondary scoring have both been areas where the Penguins have enjoyed success, and it’s helped them get through so far. But right now, playing what’s proven to be a tight and intense Round 3 series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, star play from the stars can be a factor that tilts the momentum in Pittsburgh’s favor, not only in how the actual games go but in providing a mental boost and a shot of energy and confidence to their team.
Coming into Game 2 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, the Penguins were coming off a 3-1 loss in the series opener, giving up home-ice advantage and already hitting a rut in the road. They were heading into Game 2 trying to tie the series in Pittsburgh, rather than heading to Tampa Bay for Game 3 in a 2-0 hole that would be difficult to recover from. And as the Penguins sat in the locker room getting ready, two guys were feeling waves of fire in their stomachs.
Both Crosby and Malkin entered Game 2 on mini-slumps. Crosby had gone eight games without a goal, and Malkin came in with a six-game point drought. Crosby especially had struggled to produce in the Round 2 series against Washington, going without a goal the entire series. Expectedly, he came under severe fire from the media for his lack of production in a series that anyway was much more about the secondary scoring than star power for both teams.
Game 2 saw Crosby respond to his critics in the best way. In fact, during the second intermission of that very game, NBCSN analyst Jeremy Roenick had criticized Crosby for his work ethic, saying that Crosby would do well to watch the nightly work ethic of Lightning wing Jonathan Drouin. That comment didn’t sit well with almost anybody who heard about it, since Roenick was suggesting a star like Crosby who in reality works hard shifts every game take pointers on work ethic from a guy who was suspended by his team without pay for failing to report to an AHL game and who at one point had requested a trade from the franchise.
It didn’t matter in the end, though, because Crosby got the last laugh. He’d showed signs of heating up in the third period, where fans saw Crosby start to look like he was getting back that inner fire and intensity that sets him apart on the ice. He generated a lot of offensive chances, at one point getting robbed of what looked like a sure goal by Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and also played some responsible defense and backchecking well. That streak ended up paying off in the most desirable way. Crosby came out for overtime ready to take charge, and take charge he did. Forty seconds into overtime, Crosby cashed in on a pass from Bryan Rust, who had received a brilliant zone entrance pass from Brian Dumoulin, one-timing a wicked wrister past Vasilevskiy and into the net. Incredibly, it was Crosby’s first career playoff OT goal, and he also managed to set a record by scoring the fastest overtime playoff goal in Penguins history.
That shut the critics up. And this might also be the best roast a player has given to Jeremy Roenick through success on the ice since John Scott at the All-Star Game.
But here’s the thing – while fans and analysts often act like a star player needs to actually be scoring points to be effective in a game, that’s the wrong way to look at it. Even before Crosby started looking like he was going to score again, I was seeing both him and Malkin doing some really good stuff around the ice. The thing is, these guys are valuable to their team in a lot of ways, and one of the biggest things about them is that they manage to help out, be effective, and play well even if it doesn’t translate into points.
Malkin was the guy who I thought was going to step up big in Game 2. He came out with the kind of spring in his step and the fire that I’ve learned to associate with “beast mode Geno”. He made some really good offensive plays in Game 2, most notably somehow managing to get off a great pass to Crosby to set him up – that was the play where the Penguins captain got off a solid backhander at a seemingly open net that was stopped by Vasilevskiy. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan decided in Game 2 to put Crosby and Malkin together, an especially good decision suggesting the two of them were both heating up, and it resulted in a chance that almost became a go-ahead third period goal because of a collaboration between Sid and Geno. Meanwhile, Geno for the most part did a good job breaking out, entering the offensive zone, and helping set up an attack. Crosby made some great passes, such as a solid, hard pass from closer to the blue line in the Tampa Bay zone to Justin Schultz, who was crashing the net.
The thing is, these two guys may not have scored as consistently as people would like them to, but they have still done a lot of good things. I especially like to see the games when you can tell these guys are feeling passionate and feeling confident. That’s the vibe that I was pumped up from seeing in Game 2. And guess what? That vibe continued into Game 3.
So, the situation entering Game 3: The Penguins are coming off the overtime win that tied the series, and are looking to hand Tampa their first consecutive losses of the 2016 playoffs while grabbing a lead in the series. Crosby’s coming in with renewed confidence, Malkin showing stronger and stronger signs of breaking through. Sure enough, they both came in strong. Crosby especially showed up, making some phenomenal passes and plays, playing aggressive and hard-checking defense, getting in the faces of his opponents, and eventually scoring the game-winner for a second consecutive game after a blasting a one-timer off a feed from Geno himself on a 4-on-3 power play in the third period. It was a great game for everyone on the team, but Crosby stood out; so much so that he received tons of praise fron NBCSN analysts Liam McHugh, Mike Milbury, and Keith Jones after the game. So Sid got the game-winner for the second game in a row and built a goal-scoring streak for himself, and Geno snapped his career-long playoff points drought with the assist on the Crosby goal.
“You guys (the media) were all over him and then he scores the biggest goal of the year.” – Patric Hornqvist on Sidney Crosby’s overtime winner in Game 2
So now, they’ve finally gotten past the majority of the criticism. With some fantastic team efforts by the Penguins recently, and with these two guys really starting to show up again, it’s no longer easy to point fingers. The truth is, I never really saw Crosby and Malkin playin badly enough to be criticized so much. To be honest, it was pretty obvious it was only going to be a matter of time before the two of them caught on fire. So maybe people will ignore the little, brilliant things the two of them do around the ice. Maybe people somehow manage to miss Crosby’s genius passes and quietly effective defense, or Malkin’s galloping breakout and strong plays on the puck. That’s fine. Because the amazing thing about these two guys is how they’ve channeled their emotions. The critics and the boos were ringing in their ears, but they took any anger and frustration and turned it into flames to torch the Tampa Bay Lightning and torch the nay-sayers. So opposing fans, critics, haters, those types of people – keep on hating. Because with every doubtful word or “BOOOOO” when they touch the puck and make awesome plays, you’re just motivating these guys to take their game up a few more notches.