PITTSBURGH (TNS) – When you’re the face of the NHL, stretches without goals stand out.
Prolonged slumps flash like a neon sign.
And, as games tick by, through October, then November and into December, the whispers around the league multiply, building a crescendo until they are deafening: Is this the beginning of the end for the greatest player in the game?
How utterly ridiculous does that question sound today?
Sidney Crosby, on fire again, is enjoying resurgence on the ice so dramatic that he now has the longest active point streak in the NHL at 11 games. He set a career-long, seven-game goal streak Monday when he scored two breakaway goals, rejoining a scoring race that he wasn’t close to being a part of two months ago.
With classic Crosby humility, he will tell you he never went anywhere that he simply struggled to find his way on the first stretch of his career when the team’s scoring chances were dramatically down. His teammates will corroborate this and stop just short of rolling their eyes with abandon when recalling all that noise.
“We heard about it so much,” right winger Patric Hornqvist said. “You know what? Everybody goes through those things in life. Struggle is probably a strong word for it. He was still one of our top players. Maybe he didn’t put up points, but he was a leader in the room and on the ice. He stuck with it, played the right way, and now he’s gotten rewarded.”
Here is Crosby’s take. He believes in a very simple lesson he has picked up by playing the game through 10 seasons: Scoring chances are more critical than scoring. One begets the other. Always. It’s basic mathematics.
“The biggest thing I’ve found over the year is chances,” he said. “If you’re getting chances I feel like it’s just a matter of time. If the chances are there, I’m not too worried about the puck going in.
“I think, for the first time, I experienced that there weren’t many chances. And, when that doesn’t happen, then you’ve got to find a way to create that confidence in a different way. That was probably the biggest thing, creating chances.”
Enter a coaching change, some tweaks to the system, and he came alive again.
“I’m not saying confidence is not a part of it, because it is, but I think there’s other ways you can get it,” Crosby said. “If you’re solely looking for confidence in the form of scoring, then, when you’re not, what are you going to do out there? You’ve still got to be effective. I’ve always felt like I still had an impact even when I wasn’t scoring.”
His teammates say the finger never should have pointed just at Crosby, that scoring, or the lack of it, was a collective problem.
“From my perspective, it wasn’t like this is something that’s wrong with him,” said Chris Kunitiz, Crosby’s longtime left winger. “It was something that our team wasn’t generating, wasn’t scoring. You look up and down the lineup, and the shooting percentage wasn’t there. It wasn’t there. We weren’t playing with the puck in quality areas of the ice. We weren’t generating enough on the offensive side. A lot of shots were from the outside and not really helping us. That doesn’t help a guy out.”
Crosby said he can look back and chuckle at some of the theories that emerged. He believes the constant questions were fair – he gets his role. But the speculation raised an eyebrow or two.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Crosby said. “I don’t know if I had great answers to be honest with you. I don’t think it was the same thing each time I was asked. Game to game it changed. When you’re not scoring, you’re still searching for ways yourself. I guess the harder part is having to hear other reasons why, when you’re searching and everyone else seems to know. But I understand that’s part of it.”
His general manager caught his ear a few times along the way.
“I’ve said it a few times, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Even when the production wasn’t what it’s been in past years, he was still playing well,” Jim Rutherford said. “Now you look at him, the production is there, he’s playing in both ends of the rink. I didn’t get a front-row seat over his whole career, but certainly based on what I’ve seen, he’s playing as well as he ever has in his career in all areas of the rink.
“It is impressive to watch, but by no means am I surprised. I’ve been around the block enough to see how he prepares and how focused he is. This was just a matter of time before the points came.”
And now the goals are pouring from Crosby again, some in magnificent fashion. With 7 goals and 8 assists over the past eight games, he now has 24 goals and 29 assists this season, good enough for fifth in the NHL scoring race.
He scored two breakaway goals Monday against Anaheim and assisted on two more to lead the Penguins to a 6-2 win. Saturday, against Florida, he hit the 900-point mark in his career with a goal and two assists.
He scored a natural hat trick Feb. 2 to pull the Penguins ahead for good against the Ottawa Senators in a 6-5 game that yearned for somebody to take control.
Afterward, answering questions, for a moment, he had the face of a 10-year-old boy, grinning and red-cheeked, just in from a game of pond hockey on a cold winter day.
There was confidence. Joy.
Sidney Crosby was back.