Yohe’s 10 observations: Classic Sidney Crosby performance leads Penguins over Blue Jackets

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sidney Crosby looked locked in from his opening shift at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday.

By the time he skated in his final shift, hats from thousands of Penguins fans in Columbus were flying onto the ice.

Crosby registered his 16th career hat trick (13 have come in the regular season) — and his second in Columbus — as part of a four-point night that powered the Pittsburgh Penguins over the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 5-3 decision.

“I think he likes playing here,” linemate Bryan Rust said with a grin.

This appears to be the case.

Crosby’s last two hat tricks have come in Columbus. His Penguins have never lost a playoff series against Columbus, beating the Blue Jackets in 2014 and 2017. Crosby has produced a staggering 24 points in his past nine games against the Blue Jackets.

It was a riveting performance. The puck seemingly followed Crosby on every shift, as he easily could have had six or seven points. He set Rust for a breakaway and executed a couple of other dazzling passes that left the split crowd impressed on more than one occasion.

“I’ve seen him do stuff like that for a long time,” Lars Eller said. “We didn’t really start out the game very well tonight, but he was obviously the difference.”

Crosby opened the scoring on his second shift of the evening by beating Elvis Merzlikins with a short-side shot.

After Columbus evened the game with 8:15 remaining in the third period, Crosby went to work again.

He found himself free to Merzlikins’ left and produced a vintage deflection of an Erik Karlsson pass, which ultimately was the game-winner.

In the game’s final minute, he notched the hat trick goal into an empty net.

Crosby’s effort came exclusively in even-strength situations as the Penguins were only awarded one power play, which did not convert.

The deflection goal was a classic Crosby goal if ever there has been one. Chemistry between Crosby and Karlsson appears to be forming.

“I think with time, you get a feel for what guys like to do,” Crosby said. “And we played enough against each other, I think we know each other’s tendencies. It’s just a matter of trying to see it the same way, and then execution. It’s one thing to see it, and it’s another thing to execute it. So, would love to connect on a few more of those.”

Which, of course, isn’t to say that Crosby isn’t connecting these days.

Through 14 games, the Penguins are now 8-6-0 thanks to their current five-game winning streak. Crosby has more than done his part. He currently is on a nine-game scoring streak and has registered a point in 13 of the 14 Penguins’ games this season.

Crosby now has 10 goals and 19 points, which puts him just six off the NHL scoring lead. While it’s still quite early in the season, Crosby is now on pace for 59 goals and 111 points.

“He’s essential,” Mike Sullivan said. “His leadership manifests itself in so many different ways. It’s not just his voice in the locker room but it’s his example of how he plays. That might be the most powerful way of how he leads.”

Ten postgame observations 

• Don’t ever take performances like this for granted.

Crosby is 36 and I suspect he can’t do this forever, but that was some kind of an exceptional performance. He now has 14 points in his current nine-game scoring streak.

The numbers are what they are. To me, though, this game was about the eye test when evaluating Crosby’s performance. He was a step ahead of the play all evening, his skating has absolutely hit another gear in the past week and his puck distributing was next level.

And yet, on a night when it was his outrageous passing that stood out more than anything, he scored three goals. It was the kind of performance that leaves you speechless, especially when considering his age.

It’s early, I know, but through 14 games, he’s on pace or 59 goals and 111 points. Not bad.

• I spoke with Crosby for a minute following the game and, like his high-level performance, some things never change.

He barely mustered a smile. Took it all in stride. Didn’t seem overly impressed with himself.

If anything, he sounded like a guy who thought he had a different level to reach.

I suppose, when you’ve accomplished everything that he has in his career, you don’t easily become impressed with yourself. I was struck, though, at how he seems to feel like he’s just now hitting his stride.

And by the way, Crosby now has 560 goals, which ties him on the NHL’s all-time list with Guy LaFleur.

• Crosby also was dominant on a shift that resulted in his assist on Jake Guentzel’s goal.

Guentzel, like his center, has a long history of scoring big goals in this building. He now has 203 career goals in 467 career games. I bring this up because Guentzel, I believe, goes under the radar far too much when the game’s greatest goal scorers are discussed.

Patrik Laine, who does possess more physical talent than Guentzel and who also received loads of attention when he entered the league, has 200 goals in 469 games.

This is no knock on Laine, even though he was pretty quiet. Instead, I just think it’s interesting to compare Guentzel’s numbers against more decorated players. What he has done is really something.

• Analyzing this game can be tricky.

Were the Penguins the better team most of the night? Yes. Did they play with an exceptional amount of energy? Yes. Were they sloppy and cavalier with the puck, especially in the first period? Yes. In particular, Evgeni Malkin, who is having a spectacular season, was a turnover machine in the first period. The second line was very much out of sorts.

Sullivan seemed happy with this team’s performance, and that is fair. I didn’t like their first period at all.

“But we got much better in the next two periods,” Eller said.

Indeed they did.

• It wasn’t all bad for Malkin, though.

He helped the Penguins to a 3-2 lead in the third period in a very memorable, very Malkin kind of shift.

On two occasions on the shift, Malkin stole pucks that were intended for teammates. He does have a tendency to do this, though it’s pretty rare to see it twice on the same shift.

Then, at the end of that long shift, Malkin set up Karlsson for a goal on a gorgeous one-timer.

File that one away as an all-time Malkin shift.

• Speaking of Karlsson, I think there’s a perception out there that he’s been a little quiet in his first season with the Penguins.

Well, he had two points against the Blue Jackets and now has 15 points in 14 games. Not so bad. I’d also add that his defensive work has been considerably better than many were expecting.

He was terrific in this game. Scary good, honestly.

• Lost in all of the offense was the penalty kill with a perfect evening, killing all four power plays it faced.

I continue to marvel at Kris Letang’s work on the penalty kill. He’s been automatic in that department.

• There weren’t many negatives in this game, but I will say that I didn’t like Ryan Graves’ game.

He just doesn’t look comfortable yet. I really liked the signing this summer and I do believe he will turn it around. But he looked out of sorts in this game.

• Marcus Pettersson is the perfect defense partner for Karlsson.

Pettersson was a plus-4 in this game and his work on the penalty kill was strong. He’s been so solid throughout the season and this was one of his better games. On a team with so much flash, you need some defensive-minded players with this kind of substance.

He gets better every season.

• This was a pretty crucial win.

Here’s why: The Penguins’ schedule is about to get nasty. In the next 10 days, they’ll host the Devils, travel to Carolina, host Vegas on the next night, host the Rangers, travel to Buffalo and then host the Maple Leafs.

That’s an absolutely brutal stretch. But now the Penguins are 8-6, so they can afford to lose some of those games. We couldn’t have said that a week or two ago.

It’s important for the Penguins to play smart hockey, something they have generally done in this winning streak. They got away from it a bit tonight, but given the inferior opponent, they got away with it.

Given their upcoming schedule, it would seem important to play a slightly safer brand of hockey.

Or, if Crosby keeps playing like this, perhaps they’ll be fine regardless.

(Photo: Russell LaBounty / USA Today)

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