In Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Washington Capitals, both Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin dueled like titans while netting hat tricks. The game was heralded like a Broadway show featuring two blazing stars, unmatched by their peers.
Four years later, we're back in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals in Game 2 against the Ottawa Senators and Crosby puts on another clinic that also resulted in a hat trick, though this time, he was alone. As it should be.
Crosby became the fifth fastest player to reach 100 playoff points which he did in 75 games. Just when you think Crosby couldn't etch his names on anymore lists, he finds another way to show just how supernatural his talents are. No matter how many captains Ray Shero will bring to the Pens, Crosby's work ethic and determination to be the best player in the NHL is what makes him this team's undeniable leader. If the Pens can follow his lead, they will enter the Promised Land.
A 60-minute dominant effort, this was not, but the Pens held on to take their first 2-0 series lead since Evgeni Malkin terrorized Cam Ward in 2009. When you look back, it's amazing what a hot goalie and poorly-timed injuries can do to a talented team in the playoffs. While the Pens are looking okay on the injury front (more on that later), they're far too stacked offensively to be stymied by a hot goalie this year. Instead, the concern should stem from the happenings behind the blue line.
I've been very vocal about my support for Tomas Vokoun and how much he's meant to the team, but I have to wonder how much longer he'll remain the starter. I don't think there's any doubt that his services were absolutely necessary when Marc-Andre Fleury was faltering, but can Vokoun really be the Pens' "guy" for the remainder of the playoffs (however long that is)?
I'm not sure, but I'm not as confident as I was after seeing him in Game 5 against the Islanders. Friday night, Vokoun made some spectacular saves, possibly game-changers, in the second period. At the same time, he was pretty ordinary in allowing three goals in 22 shots. How many of those goals were his fault? I feel that can be argued all night, but the Pens need to tread carefully if the cracks in Vokoun's game start to show. For the record, I don't think his time is up yet, but if the Pens are going to remain consistent with keeping their goaltenders on a short leash, who knows what could trigger Bylsma to pull the hook.
However, if I'm going to criticize Vokoun, then I need to spread the love to Deryk Engelland who would've been more effective as a no show. I understand why Bylsma turned to Engelland for this physical match up, but not only was he on the ice for both of the Sens' even-strength goals with less than nine minutes of total ice time, but he didn't even register a hit. If your physical play is what's getting you a spot on the roster, then that side of your game should be present at some point. I say bring Mark Eaton back.
While we're discussing poor showings from defensemen, I can't help but feel bad for Erik Karlsson. Clearly he isn't fully recovered from his injury and it's glaringly obvious. He must be feeling the pressure as the reigning Norris Trophy winner and playing only 15:37 has to be a blow to his ego, despite his Achilles probably thanking him. It's incidents like this where you question just how important it is to dress a player who isn't fully healthy. People talk about how Crosby at 50% is better than most players who are 100% healthy, but can you say that for many other players? On top of that, is it worth potentially making an injury even worse? Just some things to consider.
Another player who seems to be battling an injury is James Neal. Only a goal and two assists in the playoffs, it's safe to say Neal has hit a wall. He sustained an ankle injury during Game 1 against the Islanders, missed the following two games, and hasn't been the same since. With just under two minutes remaining in the first, Zack Smith checked Neal into the boards—hardly anything bone-shattering—and Neal looked to be in significant pain as he skated to the bench.
Neal's lack of production is why I'm surprised he's consistently used on the top power play unit. Unless Bylsma is hoping he'll blast one home which would start a chain reaction. Though the playoffs aren't a time to hope someone starts kicking it in high gear. Either it's happening or it isn't.
But the spotlight of this game rests on the captain. Crosby was a work horse throughout Game 2 and I'm seeing Malkin returning to form as well, despite only having one point to show for it. If those two can hit that level we know they're capable of hitting, this series will be over quickly.
Pens head to Ottawa for Sunday's Game 3. They can really put the Sens in a chokehold so here's to hoping they keep moving in the direction they're going.