Saturday, March 24, 2012
Stanley Cup Bound: Sidney Crosby, Difference Maker
The Pittsburgh Penguins have won 13 of their last 14 games and are in a position to make a huge Stanley Cup push. The return of Sidney Crosby couldn't come at a better time as they look to make that final run. In the 5 games since his return, Crosby has posted 9 points. The Penguins started their run long before Crosby was set to return, but the addition of Crosby has added an entirely new dimension to the Pens game plan.
For those who don't know, Crosby has been out for majority of the season after suffering a season ending concussion during the 2010-2011 season. Crosby missed 41 of the teams remaining games since he experienced concussion-like symptoms after two hits in January of 2011. It also happened that Evgeni Malkin also went down with injuries the same season, leaving the Pens without their two leading scorers. The Penguins ended up getting ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2011 playoffs in 7 games, thus ending their season. This is true testament to how well the team is built when the two leading scorers go down and they still hold their own against a team who ended up going to the Eastern Conference Finals. Solid defensive play and superb goaltending can go a long way in hockey and definitely adds to the mantra that defense can win championships.
Crosby tried to return back in December, registering 12 points in 8 games, before experiencing the same issues that originally sidelined him. It was believed to be a concussion but new reports came out specifying a soft-tissue complication in his neck. Crosby missed more time and delayed his return until about a week ago. On March 5, Sid the Kid was cleared for contact and has never looked back. March 15 marked Crosby's return to game , on a night where he registered 2 assists and went +3 against the New York Rangers.
However, the Penguins need Malkin and Crosby to be effective in order to win in the playoffs. It seems that the Pens have gotten it together this year without Crosby, although lately his presence has been truly welcomed. Pittsburgh has put together a total team effort this year on the offensive end while providing the same consistent approach on the blue line. The Pens have seen several players reach career highs in scoring including the likes of Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Jordan Staal. Evgeni Malkin is having an MVP season, scoring 95 points, tops in the NHL. He is currently second in goals scored with 45, second only to Steven Stamkos with 50. Malkin could easily catch Stamkos in the goal chase, now that Crosby has returned. Malkin can play less of a distributor and more of a scorer as Crosby looks to set up more than shoot.
As Pittsburgh continues their red-hot play, it is important to notice some correlation between Crosby's play and their success. Granted, there is a limited sample size, but there is a relationship there. Pittsburgh has been playing team hockey over the course of the season without him, but now that he's back, they will look to generate offense through him. In the last 4 wins, Crosby's plus/minus numbers were more on the positive side and were higher than in the game Pittsburgh lost with him. For instance, in wins against the Rangers, Devils, Jets, and Predators, Crosby's plus/minus numbers were +3, +2, +4, and +1 respectively. In a loss to the Senators, Crosby's plus/minus stood at -1. Even going back to November and December of 2011, Crosby's plus/minus numbers reflect the impact that he or his line has on the Penguins' success.
Sidney Crosby needs to continue his hot play in order for Pittsburgh to continue their run into the playoffs. The more he looks to set his teammates up, the more likely they continue to win. The Penguins' offense is playing at its fullest potential right now with Malkin leading in points, Neal having two back to back 4 point games, and Crosby scoring 9 points in 5 games. Couple this with an experienced blue line and a proven goaltender in Marc Andre' Fleury and you have a Stanley Cup favorite. As of right now, the Pens are one point away from catching up with New York for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. With Crosby and the rest of the Penguins playing at their highest level going into the final games of the season, the Penguins are definitely my pick for the Cup.