Crosby’s re­turn makes re­silient Pen­guins dili­gent, dan­ger­ous

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS - AP Sports Writer

By Will Graves

PITTS­BURGH (AP) >> Mike Sul­li­van’s mes­sages can be re­lent­less. The Pitts­burgh Pen­guins coach pep­pers his team with a hand­ful of mantras that seem­ingly run on a loop dur­ing ev­ery prac­tice, ev­ery pe­riod, some­times ev­ery shift.

They run from “play the right way” to “get to our game” to “keep it sim­ple.” All of them code words of sorts to a star-laden ros­ter that in re­cent years got so caught up in its own of­fen­sive tal­ent it oc­ca­sion­ally for­got to do the lit­tle things like, say, play re­spon­si­bly on both ends of the ice.

No more. The some­timescare­less group that was out­classed, out­smarted and out­worked while get­ting swept by the New York Is­landers in the first round of the play­offs last spring has been re­placed by a team that’s re­turned to the NHL’s elite through a mix of grit, re­siliency and ma­tu­rity.

Tues­day night’s 7-3 romp over Min­nesota gave the Pen­guins their fourth con­sec­u­tive vic­tory and drew them within four points of Wash­ing­ton for the top spot in the Metropoli­tan Di­vi­sion as the All-Star break looms. It’s heady ter­ri­tory for a group that spent the last four months watch­ing one high-pro­file player af­ter an­other limp down the tun­nel and onto in­jured re­serve, the most jar­ring be­ing cap­tain Sid­ney Crosby’s slow skate to­ward the bench in the third pe­riod of a shootout vic­tory over Chicago on Nov. 9.

Five days later Crosby un­der­went surgery to re­pair a her­nia. The Pen­guins were in the mid­dle of the pack in the East­ern Con­fer­ence at the time, their sea­son at an early tip­ping point. Crosby had led the charge in making sure Pitts­burgh played the 200-foot game Sul­li­van craves. With­out him, the Pen­guins eas­ily could have lost their way.

In­stead, they re­claimed the iden­tity that sym­bol­ized the teams that won back-to­back Stan­ley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Their of­fen­sive wig­gle room ba­si­cally gone, the Pen­guins tight­ened things up in front of goal­tenders Tristan Jarry and Matt Mur­ray. They made small plays in their own end that led to big op­por­tu­ni­ties at the other.

They knew that to stay afloat in the NHL’s best di­vi­sion, they didn’t re­ally have a choice.

“It was kind of a cat­a­lyst for why we had to play the game the way we did, more de­fen­sively, less risky and ul­ti­mately why we’ve been giv­ing up fewer chances as a team,” for­ward Zach As­ton-Reese said.

What fol­lowed was an 186-4 stretch that pro­pelled Pitts­burgh to fourth in the over­all stand­ings dur­ing Crosby’s 28-game ab­sence, the sec­ond-best record in the league over that span and ab­surd to­tal for a group that has missed nearly 200 man games due to in­jury.

“When you miss a player of Sid’s cal­iber, ob­vi­ously the game changes a lot,” for­ward Jared McCann said. “You’ve got to sim­plify things. You’ve got to take it one pe­riod at a time, one shift at a time and we did that. We showed we could do it and now that we have him back, we’re a deadly team.”

It sure looked against the Wild.

Crosby needed less than eight min­utes to pick up his first point since be­fore Hal­loween when he as­sisted on the first of Ev­geni Malkin’s two goals, an op­por­tu­nity that arose thanks in part to Crosby’s mere pres­ence.

With the Pen­guins on the power play, Crosby skated into the zone and fed Malkin be­fore dart­ing to the far post, leav­ing Wild for­ward Ja­son Zucker with an un­en­vi­able choice. Zucker could ei­ther stick with Crosby or try to slow down Malkin streak­ing down the mid­dle. Zucker opted to shadow Crosby, giv­ing Malkin all the room he needed to tap in Bryan Rust’s cen­ter­ing pass. like it

GENE J. PUSKAR - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pitts­burgh Pen­guins’ Sid­ney Crosby (87) re­turns to the bench af­ter his goal dur­ing the third pe­riod of an NHL hockey game against the Min­nesota Wild in Pitts­burgh, Tues­day, Jan. 14, 2020.

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