Crosby looking to jump-start offense vs. McDavid, Oilers

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As fun as the “best hockey player in the world” debate has been through the early weeks of the season, that conversation has deflected some attention from Sidney Crosby not exactly being at his best.

About a week ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz discussed Crosby’s scoring struggles, noting the belief that it’s “only a matter of time” before number 87 finds his offense again. To be more specific, Crosby hadn’t scored a goal yet, and he still hasn’t; he now sits at zero goals and five assists in six games.

Of course, the Penguins have been off since blanking the Maple Leafs 3-0 on Oct. 18, so it’s not as though Crosby’s added many more goal-less games since then. Even so, that’s given him that much more time to stew over any frustrations that might be lingering – as early as we are in the season, Crosby’s nothing if not a perfectionist – which makes Tuesday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers that much more tantalizing.

[More on the best debate from AP; don’t sleep on Crosby’s buddy Nathan MacKinnon]

Could Sidney Crosby finally enjoy a truly transcendent performance against Connor McDavid?

It’s probably bittersweet (and all-too-familiar) for McDavid to review the four Penguins – Oilers games that involved the two superstars:

  • McDavid has been splendid, scoring two goals and five assists for seven points in those four contests.
  • For whatever reason, Crosby hasn’t really taken off in the battle of number 87 vs. number 97, as he’s only generated a single assist.
  • Despite that disparity, the Penguins won all four games.

That last point underscores the fact that hockey is a team sport, and underlines the greatest difference between the two right now: Crosby has a lot more help. After all, Evgeni Malkin (98 points) and Phil Kessel (92) finished last season with more points than Crosby, who generated 89 in 2017-18. That trend has carried over to this early campaign, as Malkin has doubled Crosby’s points (12 to 6) heading into Tuesday’s game.

So, yes, it’s overly simplistic to boil down this poster to a boxing or pro-wrestling style poster of Crosby and McDavid staring each other down.

That said, it’s not just the media and fans who are getting revved up for this one. Milan Lucic ranks among those who acknowledge the buzz around this game, as Sportsnet’s Mark Spector reports.

“It’s really special,” Milan Lucic said of the matchup. “It’s a game a lot of people tune into and I know, as an athlete, it’s a game you want to be in, playing in front of and with greatness. It’s kinda like back in the day when Mario and Wayne would play against each other.”

Interestingly, Crosby is playing more of the Gretzky role to McDavid’s Lemieux, at least in broad strokes.

Crosby’s team is deeper, as Wayne’s was during his Edmonton run; McDavid, meanwhile, might feel the same frustrations Mario did (although at least McDavid has Leon Draisaitl and some other quality players Lemieux lacked for some time). Crosby’s the guy who might be at the twilight of his peak, and he has the rings, while McDavid is that magical, almost-alien talent whose ceiling sometimes seems limitless.

This makes for incredible fodder, but again, there’s the question of whether Crosby can slip out of his funk.

Six games don’t give you anywhere near enough of a sample size to get too worried about anything. Much like Tom Brady, we’ve been down this road about wondering if Crosby’s finally hit the wall, only to have that door emphatically slammed shut. Let’s not forget that he’s close to a point-per-game, anyway.

It is, however, fair to note that – for his standards – Crosby has been pretty quiet.

As much as Crosby’s known as a passer, he tends to affect multiple levels of the game, so seeing barely more than two shots on goal per game (13 in 6, or 2.17 SOG each game) is noteworthy. Crosby’s developed into quite the volume shooter over the years, as his career average is 3.28 SOG per game, and last season’s 3.01 per contest marked his career-low.

Again, six games represent less than 1/15th of a hockey season, and Crosby’s adjusting to a new season, not to mention a mixture of wingers. While he’s clearly developed chemistry with mainstay Jake Guentzel over the years, the Penguins have placed his other winger in the old line blender, spitting out the likes of Derick Brassard, Patric Hornqvist, and Bryan Rust.

You wonder how long the Penguins can ask Crosby’s to carry another forward or two, as he’s managed for so much time. Perhaps this relatively slow start, if nothing else, calls for a little more help.

One way or another, Crosby is almost certain to find answers, and the net. Bonus points if it happens with the spotlight shining during tonight’s game against McDavid and the Oilers.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.