It hasn’t worked in Pittsburgh. While the Penguins made perhaps the offseason’s splashiest move by trading for Erik Karlsson, pairing another surefire Hall of Famer with the three they already had, they’re still only being propped up in the Metro Division by the pointless Blue Jackets. They’re only three points out of a wild-card spot, but have a host of teams they’d have to leap to get there. And making up ground in the NHL is, as Blade once told us, “ice skating uphill.” (that line confused me at the time, but I’m glad it finally came into use).
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But it could be worse, and a lot worse, if Sidney Crosby wasn’t still somehow playing his best hockey at the age of 36. He bailed their ass out again Monday night after they’d blown a 3-0 lead to the Minnesota Wild at home, banging home a rebound on the power play late in the third period to get the Penguins the two points.
Which has been the story for most of the season, 33 points in 30 games, which seems metronomic for Crosby, but comes into clearer relief when eyes are focused slightly south to his contemporary Alex Ovechkin, who has fallen off a cliff so far this season in his late 30s. But Crosby’s season is about more than the headline numbers.
While averaging slightly less time than in previous years (all stats from NaturalStatTrick.com), Crosby is rocking his best, individual expected goals per 60 minutes of his career. He’s averaging more shot attempts per 60 than he ever has and by some distance (18.3 attempts per 60 this year, his previous high was 16.4 in ‘10-’11). He’s getting more shots on goal per game that at any point in his career. And to boot, more scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances per game since his rookie season. That’s a 36-year-old producing better chances and more of them than he ever has, which just doesn’t happen in hockey.
None of it has come at the expense of his defense, as his relative possession numbers when compared to the rest of his teammates are higher than they’ve been in four or five seasons. Some of that is slanted as Crosby has been deployed as simply an offensive weapon for a while now (71 percent of his shifts start in the offensive zone), but he certainly doesn’t do any backing up. He’s also winning 60 percent of his faceoffs, if that’s your particular flavor of vodka.
One of the more amazing aspects of Crosby’s scoring these days is just how varied it can be. According to AllThreeZones.com, Crosby exists in a very special plane with only Jack Hughes and Artemi Panarin as players who are both dominant off the rush and off the cycle/forecheck. Everyone is pretty aware that Crosby is a demon around the net, whether he was winning puck battles behind the net to maintain possession or being un-checkable in the slot and banging home rebounds or tip-ins or slot passes. But at his age, he shouldn’t be one of the league’s best in open ice and on odd-man breaks, but he is. He just hasn’t lost anything.
And quite simply, the Penguins have needed every bit of Crosby’s brilliance. They’ve gotten basically nothing from their bottom six forwards. At the moment, the bottom six forwards that the Pens rolled out last night haven’t combined for as many points as Crosby has by himself. This has been generally the story for the Penguins for a while, where they keep shaking the Yahtzee cup on who backs up 87 and 71, and maybe one or two years it’ll work out and they’ll be contenders.
The feared bugaboo for the Pens before the season was the goaltending, but it’s actually been really good. Both Tristan Jarry and Alex Nadeljkovic have save percentages over .910, with some pretty glowing saves over expected numbers, too. That hasn’t sunk the Pens at all as was expected.
The Penguins’ major problem has been mostly luck-based. They have the sixth-worst shooting percentage at even-strength in the league, while creating the third-most expected goals. The story is no different on the power play, which should be a Smash TV weapon, where the Penguins are creating the sixth-most expected goals per 60 and yet still have the sixth-worst shooting percentage. Eventually, at least with the man advantage, more pucks are going to start to go in. Evgeni Malkin isn’t going to be stuck on two power-play goals for the season for much longer, one would have to guess.
Other than the bottom six, the Pens might have to have a talk about what to do with Kris Letang’s pairing. Letang hasn’t pushed the play like he used to in a few years and this season isn’t much different. Which leaves Karlsson as the only serious play-driver from the back end, and the Pens may need another before the deadline. That, and not having to ice a farting corpse like Jeff Carter anymore.
The Penguins have a lot of ground to make up, but the only reason it’s manageable is that Sidney Crosby continues to be Sidney Crosby. Look at the top-20 scorers so far (Crosby is 22nd) and you’ll only find three that are even 30 (Kucherov, J.T. Miller, and Panarin). The problem for an old man like Crosby is he can’t let up if the Pens are going to make up that ground.
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