Grove: Crosby Biggest Reason The Penguins Turnaround

The steady fire underneath it all has been Sid

Bob Grove
December 28, 2018 - 12:48 pm

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - The Penguins will pursue a fifth straight victory, something they’ve accomplished only once in the last 21 months, when they visit St. Louis Saturday night. They’ve suffered only four regulation losses in their last 18 games and have their once-wobbly 2018-19 season back on track.

They’ve done it with better goaltending from both Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith, Murray now 4-0 with a .957 save percentage in four starts since returning from injury. They’ve done it with improved penalty killing, now third in the NHL at 84.1 percent. They’ve done it with the terrific play of Kris Letang and partner Brian Dumoulin, steady production from Jake Guentzel and fresh contributions from guys like Bryan Rust (11 points in eight games) and Marcus Pettersson, whose play with Jack Johnson has solidified the team’s bottom pair.

And, notably, they’ve done it without the usual scoring from Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, who are both under a point-per-game clip during this run, although Kessel had some magic going in his three-point effort Thursday in a 5-2 home win over Detroit.

But the steady fire underneath it all has been Sidney Crosby. His return from an upper body injury in mid-November signaled the start of this 12-4-2 stretch, and you can’t measure his impact simply by counting points. Sure, he’s got plenty of those, going 8-16-24 with 19 of those points coming at even strength, and he’s been on the ice for 12 of the last 14 goals scored by the Penguins.

But it’s also a lot of little things that help make up his outsized contribution to Pittsburgh’s turnaround.

It’s his continued focus on playing the whole rink, on display again Thursday when he beat all the Penguins forwards back to help negate a first-period two-on-one from the Wings. It’s the innumerable puck battles he’s winning along the boards. It’s the competitive impulses we saw in after-the-whistle exchanges with Alex Ovechkin and Ryan Getzlaf recently.

It’s winning faceoffs. He’s now had 12 straight winning nights in the circle (168-97, 63.4%), the longest such streak of his career. He’s fourth in the NHL in faceoff winning percentage at 57.0, more than five full points above his career average, and he’s at 62.4% this season on the power play.

Crosby will be 32 in the summer, yet since his return coach Mike Sullivan has leaned a lot harder on him. After he was eased back into the lineup Nov. 21 against Dallas with less than 17 minutes, he has averaged 21:15 of ice time per night, up from 20:01 over his first 17 games this season. He’s not getting it on the power play, as the Penguins have had fewer power plays than all but three teams. But he is getting it for the first time in years on the penalty kill, which of course is much harder work and where he’s been playing somewhat regularly now for a half-dozen games.

Not all the pieces of the Penguins puzzle are aligned as 2018 closes out, but their picture is so much more in focus than it was when they had lost nine of 10 games back in mid-November. There are lots of reasons for it, but none bigger than the continued brilliance of Crosby. 

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