One of the toughest schedules to deal with in hockey - as coaches will often point out in their media availability - is the old three game in four days stretch. Add in when it’s four games in six days when applicable too and that only adds to the difficulty dealing with energy level, traveling, injuries, the works. Every team has to deal with it and it’s why the NHL regular season schedule is such an unrelenting grind.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were up for that; with three in four, and four in six, and really dating back it was 11 games in the last 19 days coming into tonight’s contest on the road against the Carolina Hurricanes.
It ended up being A-OK for Pittsburgh, courtesy of the engine that’s pretty much been driving them now for the last 14 seasons in Sidney Crosby showing the way to another win.
Crosby’s diligent effort resulted in primary assists on all three goals of this game.
First Sid collected the puck behind the net, didn’t even seem to be bothered by being jolted down to his knees and still made a beauty of a backhand pass to find Kris Letang stepping up and firing the puck past Curtis McElhinney to open the scoring.
Sidney Crosby doesn't even need to be skating to make an impact on the game.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 23, 2018
Crosby's pass from his knees went straight to @Letang_58 (four points in his last five games; 1G-3A), who made no mistake and buried it up high. pic.twitter.com/wFAQET8Piw
Later in the second period, Crosby used his unparalleled edge work on his skates to carry momentum while going “10 to 2”, or really maybe 9 to 3 more accurately with his feet twisting all the way around and still have the power to open up his angle to find Jake Guentzel in front of the net and Guentzel slammed home the game’s second goal.
Jake Guentzel scored this one through traffic... Guess who had the assists?— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 23, 2018
If you said Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust again, you'd be correct. pic.twitter.com/gtik4gugCS
Late in the second, Guentzel and Crosby were on the same page again, with Sid firing over a conventional cross-ice pass to hit #59 in stride and he was able to quickly snap it up high into the net for Guentzel’s second goal of the night to put the score at 3-0 less than a minute before the intermission.
You might say that these guys are feeling pretty good— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 23, 2018
Guentzel's second of the game was assisted by Sidney Crosby (you really shouldn't be surprised at this point) and Phil Kessel. pic.twitter.com/iStLWt3Oce
Add in 39 saves by Matt Murray and that would be more than enough to take the two points on this night.
- Just one of those games where it looked like Sidney Crosby was out-working, out-thinking and making the best of everything. Best player on the ice on either side by far, as he so often is.
- Bryan Rust was mentioned in the goal descriptions but he used his speed and moved the puck very well to support and start the scoring plays on the first two goals, earning assists on both. Rust’s goal heater didn’t play off, but he wasn’t any less good, another very strong performance for Rust.
- Matt Murray was steady as she goes too. Didn’t really have to be great, but was solid enough when called upon. The only real trouble came in the first period when a shot beat him and hit the cross-bar. The arena horn sounded as play continued with players a bit out of sort as to if it counted. The Hurricanes still had the puck in a dangerous way but the quick whistle came out. A review confirmed the puck did not go in the net.
- To be fair, I have no qualms with a quick whistle after the arena staff jumps the gun and hits a premature goal horn or flashes their strobe lights (which also briefly happened last week in Washington when the puck didn’t go in the net, but there was no whistle). If your home team’s own game night crew interjects before they should you should no longer get the benefit of the doubt. Everyone wants to be right on top of things, but there’s no reason an arena-based celebration should start before the goal light goes on. If the refs stop the play in part because of those actions, well that’s just tough stuff.
- Interesting to see the Pens mix things up a bit with Patric Hornqvist moving up with Evgeni Malkin and Dominik Simon and Phil Kessel slotting in with Derick Brassard and Tanner Pearson for most of the game. Nothing wrong there with looking for a spark and seeing what more you can get from the other lines, and Hornqvist added to the Malkin line traditionally works well with a little more jam.
- The Pens PK did the job going a perfect 4/4 on kills. Great stuff from that group again, which really has been a quiet but steady force for the team all season. Carolina has a sputtering power play these days, but the Canes didn’t even get one shot on goal (and only had one attempt) in a sizeable 5:36 amount of time.
- Speaking of PK, there definitely was a concerted effort the use Crosby more while killing penalties. Entering the night Sid was only averaging 0:16 per game on the PK, for a total of just 8:38 all season. Tonight alone he played 3:12 while short-handed, which probably was a victim of circumstance a bit to get caught out for a while on one shift, and the situation with Riley Sheahan and Derick Brassard taking separate penalties- which obviously made them unavailable centermen for the kills.
- That said, maybe it’s ghosts of Pavel Datsyuk catching a puck on his foot and breaking it in the 2009 Western Conference Finals (which knocked him out for most of the Pens/DET SCF) but for my money I’d prefer not seeing a star player use his lungs up on SH time while having a higher risk of injury and a lower chance of generating offense compared to just saving him for an even strength shift when the penalty ends. For one game, no big deal, but big picture it’s probably wiser to have Crosby at 0:18 SH TOI per game more than 3:12..
And now, finally, a well-earned break. The Pens go into Christmas winning five of six games and 8-2-1 in their last 11. They’re pretty healthy and the top line of Guentzel-Crosby-Rust looks a step better than anyone else they play against right now. But four days of a break will be welcomed and useful as the time grinds along in the regular season schedule.