Right now, the team can do no wrong. Even when they lose Evgeni Malkin right before game time, or important defensive forward Zach Aston-Reese as well, the mindset and results haven’t changed.
“Sometimes I wish when we had a full lineup I could convince us to play with the same simplicity,” coach Mike Sullivan said after the game. “Maybe the silver lining in all the adversity we’ve faced is we’ve discovered an identity that we can play to that brings us success.”
Sullivan sees simplicity, and the blueprint has been pretty basic. Either Tristan Jarry or Matt Murray has provided stellar goaltending in 2020. The straight-line forechecking attack has resembled early Sullivan-led teams with increased team speed and tenacity. The power play is now clicking again, which was as simple as just getting back the best player in the world.
When Crosby returned to the lineup on Jan. 14, Pens' PP was 24-for-127 (18.9%). Since then, it's gone 13-for-42 (30.9%) with one period yet to go tonight.— Bob Grove (@bobgrove91) February 19, 2020
As Grove also noted, Crosby became the fourth player in recorded NHL history to win 11,000 career faceoffs; joining Rod Brind’Amour, Joe Thornton and Patrice Bergeron. Crosby has also factored into 10 of the last 15 goals the Pens have scored.
Overall Crosby has 23 points in 13 games since returning from core surgery. That would be a full season pace of 145 points. Sid is doing that while jumping back into everyone else’s mid-season form following a major surgery, and at the age of 32. It’s an astoundingly amazing season that might be one of his finest years yet, all things considered.
“He has such great instincts and he makes great plays,” Sullivan said of his captain. “He’s one of those guys that just has vision. He can see the play or anticipate two or three passes in advance… Sid plays chess when some of the other guys play checkers.”
On that, the rest of the team is catching up. Whether it was Jared McCann making a diagonal cross-ice pass to start a power play goal, or Patric Hornqvist saucing a perfect pass for Crosby to literally have an empty net goal or Bryan Rust laying back a beauty for Teddy Blueger to chip into an open cage, the Pens are feeling it right now.
Two top four defensemen are down. Malkin was an unexpected late scratch in a climate where almost nothing is worse in hockey than breaking the routine of the last minute change. Two more depth forwards were also out. It didn’t matter, the Penguins looked like the best team in the world last night. Coaching and the Crosby performance will go a long way for that. The Pens have had the best coaching in the NHL this season, and their leader has led them. All the way to first place, in fact.