PITTSBURGH — Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final wasn’t even a minute old when Sidney Crosby put his stamp on it.
In a flash, Crosby took a pass and split the Nashville defense. He forced Ryan Ellis to take a holding penalty, got past him anyway, then whipped a shot off the post. No goal there, but the Penguins would score moments later on the resulting power play. They’d go on to hammer the Predators, 6-0.
It was a masterful performance by the Penguins captain, who finished with three assists and literally rubbed P.K. Subban’s face in it. Pittsburgh can win the Cup Sunday in Music City. If not there, then Game 7 will be Wednesday back at PPG Paints Arena.
“We had a great start,” said Crosby. “Wanted to make sure that we played on our toes. Obviously, getting a few goals helps, and then we followed up in the second. That’s how we need to play.”
They sure didn’t play that way in the first four games, even though they won the first two. Game 5 was by far their best performance of the series. It was a dominant victory.
Oddly enough, Game 4 might’ve been their second best, even though they lost it by three goals.
“There was a lot to like about that game,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “We felt as though there was a lot to like about that game. I think sometimes people can get fooled by the scores of games, but we don’t. We understand it. And I think we try to keep an objective assessment of our games.”
“I think we turned the page,” added Crosby. “Looking at (Game 4), we felt like we still generated some good chances. We felt if we did a few things differently and buried those chances, we’d give ourselves a chance to win.”
Oh, and for the record, Crosby didn’t intentionally throw that water bottle.
“I made a gesture and it came flying out of my hands,” he explained. “I didn’t try to throw it. I know it ends up on the ice, but I wouldn’t start throwing water bottles at this point. I remember being surprised when it came out of my hands and thinking, ‘Great.’ But I have a better arm than that.”
It was a nasty Game 5, in an increasingly nasty series. Near the end of the first period, Crosby got mixed up behind the net with Subban. The two stars went to the ice and skirmished for a few seconds. They each received two minutes for holding.
What happened during that skirmish depends on who you asked.
“He lost his stick, and he was doing some sort of UFC move on my foot,” said Crosby. “I don’t know what he was trying to do. I was trying to get out of there. He had lost his stick and was just trying to hold me down. I was in some sort of lock there. I don’t know what it was.”
Predators head coach Peter Laviolette saw things rather differently.
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “I don’t understand the call. I saw my guy get his head cross-checked in the ice ten times. I don’t even know what he did, P.K. I’m not sure. I disagree with the call.”
Alas, neither Crosby nor Subban bit when asked if things had gotten personal between the two. They may have diametrically different personalities — one shunning the attention, the other craving it — but each chose diplomacy over escalation.
“Everyone’s out there trying to compete,” said Crosby. “He’s trying to do his job and I’m trying to do mine.”
“It’s just hockey,” said Subban. “It’s just hockey.”
And so we head back to Nashville, where you know it’s going to be nuts. On Sunday, the Penguins can become the first repeat champs of the salary-cap era. Or, the home team will win again and the Stanley Cup Final will have its first Game 7 since 2011.
As for Game 5, it may well be remembered as the game that Crosby won on his very first shift.
“I just think what separates him is his drive,” said Sullivan. “I don’t know that I’ve been around an athlete, not just a hockey player but an athlete, that is as driven as Sid is.”