Crosby sets new standard of clutch

PITTSBURGH -- He still sports an ungainly face shield that makes him look more linebacker or sci-fi gladiator than hockey player. And a glimpse at his lower jaw area puts one in mind of a picket fence battered by a tornado.

But make no mistake: Sidney Crosby is back.

Oh, he’s been good, sometimes brilliant, thus far this playoff season. But Friday’s 4-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators that included a three-goal Crosby performance was something more, and marked his finest postseason game since the Penguins’ magical playoff spring of 2009.

"I mean, I haven’t played that much since," Crosby said with a laugh, a bit of a rueful acknowledgement of his injury issues and the issues of getting into a good playoff groove since that run to the Cup.

Still, the echoes of that 2009 playoff run were profoundly evident in this game.

The win marked the first time since the 2009 Stanley Cup finals that the Penguins won two games at home in a row in the playoffs. It marked the first time since then that they won the first two games of a series at home since the 2009 Eastern Conference finals.

"I was able to capitalize on my chances and felt pretty good out there. It was a pretty fast pace. I think we played with a lot of speed, everybody was going, so it was a nice game," Crosby said.

That such an event coincided with Crosby’s best postseason performance in four years would appear to be not a coincidence at all, but something more, even if Crosby and the Penguins weren’t interested in reading too much into it.

"Well, you want to play well at home and make sure you’re good here, and we did that. We got two wins. But I don’t think your mindset changes," Crosby said. "We know that it’s going to get more difficult. I think we just turn the page on this one and move onto the next and prepare the same way. I don’t think we need to get caught up in the fact that we won two here. They’re going to be pretty desperate, so we better be ready to go into Ottawa."

A lot of water has passed under the Penguin bridge since that spring of 2009, and the seven-game classic final series against the Detroit Red Wings, and much of it murky. And to be sure there is a lot of road to be traveled before the Penguins reach that kind of stage again.

But Friday’s performance was a reminder of how many different forms greatness can take.

Sometimes it’s easy to see. Like Crosby’s first goal in Game 2, as he raced with the puck from his own blue line, slicing in from the left side, gliding by defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson as though Karlsson was a shadow to slide a shot past Craig Anderson for a 1-0 Pittsburgh lead just 3:16 into the game.

But sometimes there are deeper elements or texture to the greatness.

For instance, in the wake of their 4-1 loss in Game 1, the Senators had talked about wanting to press the play and not let the Penguins dictate the pace of play, especially early in the game. And yet Crosby’s goal negated that.

"Catch-up hockey is losing hockey," said Ottawa head coach and back-to-back Jack Adams Award finalist Paul MacLean after the game.

"We’re behind 1-0 early in both games and now you’re playing catch-up the whole way, and that takes a lot of energy, and that leads to frustration, and we have to be sure we’re ready for the next game at the start," he added.

Still, in the first period the Penguins were unsuccessful on two straight power-play opportunities and then allowed the Sens to tie the game on a power-play goal of their own by Kyle Turris after an offensive-zone hooking penalty by Evgeni Malkin.

All of a sudden, the Sens were back to even keel.

They had denied the NHL's most potent postseason power play and then put a dent in a Penguins penalty kill that had been dominant, killing off 11 straight man-advantage opportunities heading into Game 2.

So, would the Senators exert their influence, would they be able to take advantage of those small victories to push toward a greater, more important victory?

No. Because Crosby would deny them that traction by once again wheeling down the left side, waiting, waiting, and then when it looked like his only play was to slide a pass across the crease -- something Anderson clearly anticipated and committed to -- Crosby waited that extra beat and sneaked the puck between Anderson and the post for a 2-1 lead with 3:53 left in the first period.

"I was kind of running out of space there to make a pass, so I was hoping that I was able to find a way somehow, but yeah, kind of saw him leaning a bit," Crosby said.

He wasn’t done.

Karlsson, clearly nowhere near the dynamic player he was before having his Achilles tendon lacerated in a run-in with Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke early in the regular season, found himself a step behind Cooke in the first minute of the second period and was forced to take a hooking penalty.

Just 26 seconds later, Crosby stepped to the top of the circle to the right of Anderson and blasted home his third of the night.

It would spell the end for Anderson on this night and marked the first postseason hat trick for Crosby since that epic night during the 2009 playoffs on May 4, when he and Alex Ovechkin traded hat tricks in what would be a Washington victory.

"He makes the game look absolutely, disgustingly easy. There were a couple of passes tonight it was coast to coast 100 feet across the ice. One to [Pascal] Dupuis, he had just got on the ice for a change; I didn’t even know he was about to come on. Just tremendous. Could have had five," national analyst Glenn Healy told ESPN.com after the game.

Crosby acknowledged Friday that coming up with the win made this one a little sweeter than the 2009 hat trick.

Head coach Dan Bylsma said the team had talked about the need to build on its Game 1 victory and not take a step back or sideways, to assume things would go their way.

It was why he started Crosby’s line, he said.

"You look for those guys to set the tone," Bylsma said.

Was this Crosby’s best postseason game in four years?

"He’s done a lot in a lot of different games for our team in different areas, but tonight I think it was his best and it was best early on for our team," Bylsma said.

While the goals came at crucial moments and had an important impact on the game, in each case Bylsma also noted how well Crosby played on the defensive side of the puck in the third period after the Senators had crept back to within a goal.

"[It was] his best game away from the puck defensively as well and, in the third period, in the last 10 minutes in particular. Very big in a lot of aspects," he said.

Very big, indeed.