Yohe’s 10 observations: Sidney Crosby is ‘going to try to will’ Penguins to the playoffs



CHICAGO — Sidney Crosby bristled at the idea of the Penguins being finished this season, 24 hours earlier, after a sobering loss against the Florida Panthers.

Then came the news that Jake Guentzel is out for approximately four weeks.

Maybe this was the death blow, and perhaps a victory against the NHL’s worst team doesn’t make a bit of difference. One of Crosby’s teammates, however, insists otherwise and credits the captain. Crosby scored twice, including a goal 15 seconds into the game, as the Penguins enjoyed a fairly comfortable 4-1 victory against the rebuilding and inept Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday.

It marked the 12th time in Crosby’s career that he has reached the 30-goal plateau.

Not since he was a rookie, however, has Crosby played on a team that was this far out of a playoff spot at this point in the season. And not since that 2005-06 season has Crosby played on a team that has looked so overmatched on paper, particularly with the nightmarish news that Guentzel has been put on long-term injured reserve.

Don’t count Crosby out, insisted one of his teammates.

“We all believe we’re going to be a playoff team, and I know that Sid believes that,” Ryan Graves said. “He does. Look at what he did tonight, how he played. He’s going to try to will us to the postseason.”

Mike Sullivan used very similar language when asked to analyze Crosby’s performance.

“I thought he looked like he was trying to will it for us,” Sullivan said. “He was locked in front the first shift. I thought be brought his game to another level tonight.”

Crosby scored on an outrageous deflection, something that has been common this season, 15 seconds into the game.

With the Blackhawks having pulled within a goal, Crosby gave the Penguins some breathing room with his 30th goal of the season in the third period.

Crosby is well aware that life will be more difficult with Guentzel out of the lineup.

“Not what you want to hear,” Crosby said. “It didn’t look good when it happened. We all understand that it’s a big void. But we’ve been in situations with guys out. Different guts have found ways to step up.”

It remains to be seen if the Penguins possess a roster capable of “stepping up” with Guentzel out. Should general manager and president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas decide to dismantle the Penguins before the March 8 trade deadline, they might certainly be unable to mount a playoff charge. Maybe they can’t anyway.

The victory pulled them within five points of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and the Penguins have games in hand on most of the field.

So long as there is Crosby, the Penguins feel like there is a way.

“He was awesome tonight,” said Rickard Rakell, who looked comfortable playing on the top line with Crosby and Bryan Rust. “It’s what you always expect from him. He’s always going to lead us, and that always makes us feel good.”

Graves, who grew up idolizing Crosby in Nova Scotia, spoke with conviction about the Penguins finding their way despite naysayers having all but written them off.

“He’s been the heart of this team for years,” Graves said. “The way he conducts himself, the way he leads. The way he comes through in moments like that, scoring on the first shift of the game after a rough couple of days for us. That’s who he is.”

Reilly Smith also scored for the Penguins and Rust added an empty-netter.

Up next for the Penguins is a home game against the Kings on Sunday, which will follow Jaromir Jagr’s number-raising ceremony. It will be a day to honor a Penguins legend. And another Penguins legend will take the ice after the ceremony.

Should Crosby will this team to the playoffs, it would be one of the most extraordinary achievements of an extraordinary career.

“He wants it,” Graves said. “He wants all of the pressure on his shoulders. He’s made that clear to us. He’s not looking for anybody else to do it for him. He’s going to lead the way. We’re just trying to follow him.”

10 postgame observations

• Crosby deflection goals never get old. This one moved him past Mario Lemieux for the most even-strength goals in franchise history, with 406.

 

• This wasn’t a great hockey game by any stretch, but the Penguins stuck to a simple game plan and it worked.

They were hardly perfect, but they didn’t commit many turnovers and were relatively responsible with the puck. That’s how they need to play, more than ever.

• If the Penguins are going to make an improbable run to the playoffs, consistent scoring from Smith would seem to be mandatory.

Also, if the Penguins are intent upon being sellers, which certainly seems plausible, Smith would figure to be a player who could generate some interest.

Thus, what I’m saying is, a Smith resurgence is only a good thing for the Penguins.

He was a factor most of the evening and gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead in the first period with this shot on the backhand.

He’s endured a rough stretch, obviously, but keep in mind that Smith has always been a streaky goal-scorer, and it appears he’s beginning to wake up. If the Penguins have any chance to be relevant down the stretch, Evgeni Malkin and Smith absolutely must locate the chemistry that was so present in October.

• The Penguins played with a roster that included Jonathan Gruden, Colin White, Valtteri Puustinen and Jesse Puljujarvi.

If you think a coaching change would make the Penguins better, you’re entitled to your opinion. Maybe it would. I’m of the opinion that the coaching isn’t the problem; that the roster is the problem.

Those four players have played a combined total of 39 NHL games this season, and have combined for one goal. They currently represent 33 percent of the Penguins’ forward unit.

This doesn’t include Jeff Carter or Lars Eller, who are only going to supply so much offense. Or Rakell, who has looked lost all season. Or Rust, who looks like he is playing hurt. Or Smith, who has been sensationally streaky all season. Or Drew O’Connor, who has been quite a disappointment.

• Evgeni Malkin and Smith got caught cheating, which led to Chicago’s only goal.

O’Connor had the puck in his skates for just a moment and was unable to execute what was a pretty difficult play. So eager were Malkin and Smith to burst onto the rush, they forget about their defensive-zone responsibilities. Then, O’Connor found himself flat-footed.

It gave the Blackhawks all they needed to get back into the game.

The Penguins aren’t going to score much. We already know this. As a result, you simply can’t make decisions like that. Take care of your own zone first, then worry about participating on the rush.

That said, the Malkin line otherwise was very strong in this game.

• With 9:16 left in second period, a scrum broke out behind the Chicago net as a TV timeout was about to begin. Blackhawks goalie Arvid Soderblom had skated to the Chicago bench. Crosby, skating slowly behind the net to aid his teammates, quietly flipped the puck into the empty net.

This made me laugh because I always want Crosby to change things up and act like a jerk. You know those ceremonial faceoffs they do before games? Just once, when the Penguins are the road team, I’d love love for Crosby to win the faceoff unsuspectingly. It would be hilarious.

• Alex Nedeljkovic was very solid, as you’d expect. He stopped 27 of 28 shots and continued to give the Penguins a chance to win, and then some, in every game in which he plays.

• Rakell had a couple of helpers. Maybe that will get him going. During his time in Pittsburgh, he’s been at his best when playing on Crosby’s wing. He’s going to stay there for the time being. He needs to make the most of it.

• Connor Bedard Mania is a real thing in Chicago.

The Blackhawks are currently the NHL’s worst team. Even with Bedard, who made a surprise return to the lineup after breaking his jaw earlier this season, they are just atrocious. I mean, really, really bad.

And yet, it was a full house at the United Center. Great hockey town.

• Let Jagr Weekend Commence.

Jagr, who celebrated his 52nd birthday in Pittsburgh on Thursday, will be the center of attention all weekend. The Penguins are hosting a dinner with Jagr at Rivers Casino on Friday night, a now-sold-out event open to the public.

Then, on Sunday, the Penguins will raise his No. 68 to the rafters of PPG Paints Arena. Puck drop is set for 6 p.m., but the Penguins are asking fans to show up very early. Gates open at 3 p.m.

I have heard some of the details of the ceremony, and trust me: You don’t want to miss it.

(Photo of Sidney Crosby and Blackhawks goalie Arvid Soderblom: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)





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