Let’s get something straight right away: Sidney Crosby never left.
Sure, a couple of shiny new toys named Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews burst onto the scene dramatically in recent years, tearing up the record books and absorbing all the media attention for their nightly displays of magic on ice. But Crosby has just chugged along on his trademark elite clip the whole time, quietly hitting his highest per-game rate since 2018/19 this season with an impressive 84 points in 69 games despite starting the year on injured reserve.
Crosby’s place in the NHL elite was never in question. He may not be the league’s consensus top player like he was in his prime, but he’s at least staying close to the conversation — even at 34.
However, what he accomplished in the first four games of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs should push him back into the middle.
The Penguins entered the playoffs this year with a cloud of sullen pessimism.
The exhausted group, who have struggled with injuries and health problems throughout the year, dropped 11 of their last 17 games to complete the season, nine of which were regular matches, while their first-choice goalkeeper succumbed to another serious ailment at the worst moment before one of their franchise pillars earned a four-game suspension.
The ceding of home field advantage to rival New York Rangers and their favorite Vezina puckstopper was just the icing on the cake of a very sad one, sending Pittsburgh fanbase expectations to a season low.
Crosby then reentered the fight as he intended and proceeded to pull her back into the stratosphere.
Nobody should be surprised. And yet we still are.
Crosby has turned back the clock in four games of postseason action so far. Cole Harbor’s pride has led the Penguins to an unlikely 3-1 lead over higher-seeded Rangers, with Crosby’s nine points in four games putting him just a point behind the league lead while his seven assists propel the field forward.
Vintage Crosby is a supreme player – good enough to cover up other supposedly fatal squad mistakes, such as depending on Louis Domingue, who is minutes away from devouring a full meal, as a goaltender-savior.
Thanks, of course, to Domingue, whose 0.906 percent saving over four appearances and three starts is better than anyone could have expected. But few teams would be able to absorb the losses inflicted on the Penguins and still be ready to defeat the Rangers by 110 points in five games.
A team with Sidney Crosby can do that. That takes him to the peak of his powers.
But it wasn’t just box-score gold that Crosby spun. No, Crosby’s underlying numbers illustrate a player who, despite carrying the second-most even workload forward of any Penguin, has completely and utterly dominated the opposition in every facet of the game whenever he stepped on the ice.
In over 73 minutes of consistent ice time to this point in the series, Crosby’s pathetic 73.26 percent goal odds share is only surpassed by his otherworldly 76.67 percent goals expected share.
Those are some smashing numbers. But math can be confusing, so it’s important to break down exactly what they mean.
Despite the toughest matchups his opponent can throw at him, Crosby’s game has tipped the ice in Pittsburgh’s favor when it comes to generating scoring opportunities and possessing possession for about 75 percent of his overall consistent strength. And considering Crosby has logged more even minutes than all but one of his fellow forwards, the Penguins essentially control the two most important facets of the game for an amazing portion of any competition – and earn the lead in the series to do so demonstrate.
Factor in all but five-on-five situations, and Crosby’s workload only grows to its heaviest in well over a decade. But he still hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, just getting better and upping his game at the exact moment the Penguins needed it from him.
He has once again given Pittsburgh believers a hero. The same hero they have relied on and counted on for the past 15 years.
That’s what Crosby does. When the odds are highest and viewers have counted him out, Sid the Kid finds a way to reach new levels few thought possible.
These playoffs showed just that. And the scariest thing is, it’s just getting started. Once again.