PITTSBURGH — Through four games the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have provided most of what was expected from them in their second round series. It is an evenly matched series that looks like it might go the distance, there has been a lot of nastiness, there has been some controversy, and the two biggest superstars in the NHL — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin — have been taking turns delivering haymakers for their respective teams on the scoreboard.
In Game 3 on Tuesday it was Ovechkin helping to continue to carry the Capitals. In the Penguins’ 3-1 win in Game 4 on Thursday night, it was Crosby’s turn again as the duo of he and Jake Guentzel continued to dominate the postseason, scoring a pair of goals — both off the stick of Guentzel — to help the Penguins even the series at two games apiece.
With his two-goal effort on Thursday Guentzel is now up to 10 goals and is leading the league in playoff goal for the second year in a row. He scored a league-best 13 goals in 25 playoff games a year ago. Almost all of his damage this season has come alongside Crosby, and it is not a stretch to suggest that line has been helping to keep the Penguins afloat in these playoffs. They are quite literally the only line that is providing offense for them in this series.
There are a few ways to look at this.
This obviously is a big part of what makes Crosby the best player in the game (or at least 1A and 1B with Connor McDavid) and one of the best players of all-time. He can change a game and carry a team for an extended period of time. That is what he is trying to do right now for the Penguins.
“I just think he’s the best player in the game,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s the best player in the game. He plays his best when the stakes are high. He plays at both end of the rink. We rely on him to defend as much as we rely on him to score goals and create offense, and he’s really good at both.
“So it doesn’t surprise me,” Sullivan continued. “He’s done it since I’ve been his coach, that has been my experience with him. I just have so much respect for the type of person he is, the type of player that he is, the care factor that he has for the team and winning, the way he always elevates his game for whatever our team needs. If we need a center to take a faceoff and defend a one-goal game when it’s a 6-on-5 situation, he’s the guy. If we need a goal and there’s a faceoff in the offensive zone, he’s the guy. That’s what separates him from every other player in the game. He is so multi-dimensional, there are so many layers to his game that no matter who he plays with he finds a way to have success and he does it night in and night out.”
With 19 points this postseason he already has as many points as he had in 24 postseason games in 2015-16 when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy, and is only seven points off of his total from a year ago (when he also won the Conn Smythe Trophy).
Another crazy number: Of the 38 goals the Penguins have scored this postseason, Crosby has been on the ice for 28 of them. That is 74 percent! If there is a concern from a Pittsburgh perspective it is the fact that percentage is probably a little too high and probably not a great recipe for sustained success. As great as Crosby and Guentzel have been together no one line can do that every single night for an entire postseason. Eventually they will have an off night. Eventually they get shut down for a game or two. Eventually the puck will not go in. The Penguins’ modus operandi the past two postseasons has been about depth and balanced scoring from all four lines. In 2015-16 Crosby was only on the ice for 41 percent of the Penguins’ playoff goals. A year ago it was 45 percent. They were getting production from everybody. This postseason, and especially in this series, they have not always been getting that.
Part of the Penguins’ depth problem this postseason has been the fact they simply have not been as healthy. Evgeni Malkin missed three games — including the first two games of this series — due to a lower body injury, and even though he scored on Thursday night still may not be 100 percent.
Beyond those two, Phil Kessel has not looked himself (he could be fighting through an injury of his own) and has been a complete non-factor. That is a huge change from the past two postseasons when he was at times their biggest difference-maker.
Derick Brassard has not quite made the offensive impact the Penguins were hoping for when they acquired him at the deadline and have put seemingly demoted him to fourth-line duty. Conor Sheary has two goals in his past 36 playoff games.
On Thursday the Penguins attempted to shuffle their lines a bit by dropping Patric Hornqvist from the Crosby-Gentuzel down to the second line alongside Malkin and Hagelin. Sullivan explained that was an effort to get other lines going, while also bringing some two-way balance to the Malkin line.
“We’re trying to find ways to get more production from other than one line,” said Sullivan.
“[Hornqvist] brings a certain dimension to any line particular line we put him on. When you look at the stretch Geno went through, probably a two or two-and-a-half month stretch in the regular season where he was filling the net, for the most part he was playing with [Hagelin] and [Hornqvist].
“Those two guys I think they force Geno to play a more straight ahead game and challenge him to shoot the puck more. [Hornqvist] is a guy that goes to the net, he wants the puck on the net, he’s constantly on him to shoot the puck. So we think that his presence on that line helps Geno play the type of game that he needs to play in the playoffs to have success. Do we tinker with that line or leave it as it is and try to move other people around. That is the direction we went with tonight, it is not etched in stone, we’l look at the game, see what we liked and make decisions accordingly.”
Leaning on the Crosby-Guentzel line to this point has them in the second-round, now facing what is essentially a best-of-three series against the Metropolitan Division champion Capitals. They have done that will getting very little production from a line that does not have Crosby on it.
On one hand, that is a pretty good position to be in, and if they can get one or two of those other lines going again it could help propel them on another deep playoff run. On the other hand, if they do not get going they are only going to go as far as Crosby and Guentzel can carry them. Relying on one line to do it all offensively is an awfully big ask. Even if it is a line centered by a player as great as Sidney Crosby.