PITTSBURGH — Like so many other times in his career, Sidney Crosby was in the middle of everything Thursday night. In this case, however, everything covered the action as well as the shenanigans.
In a Stanley Cup final where neither team seems capable of winning a game on the road, the Penguins toyed with the Nashville Predators, 6-0, to take a 3-2 lead in the series. Still, conventional wisdom has the good feelings shifting back to the Preds Sunday night when the series returns to the historically insane atmosphere of Bridgestone Arena.
Maybe one thing can swing the pendulum away from an inevitable Game Seven in PPG Paints Arena: The Penguins have No. 87 and the Predators do not.
Crosby is one win away from his third Cup, and from leading Pittsburgh to the first repeat championship in the NHL since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. He was on a different level in this game right from the first shift, when he dangled his way between Nashville defensemen Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi, cut down the slot and had Pekka Rinne beat before his shot careened off the goalpost.
Ellis grabbed him to draw a holding penalty and the Penguins — who were 0 for 13 on the power play the last three games — had an early man-advantage. They capitalized for the only goal they would need, with Crosby feeding Justin Schultz for a point shot that went five-hole on Rinne at 1:31.
“We wanted to make sure we played on our toes and I thought we did a good job of that,” Crosby said. “I had some speed and we had a pretty quick play so I wasn’t sure if they were trying to get the gap or back off. I felt like they were maybe on the way up and I tried to take it to them.”
Crosby finished with three assists on the night, with his ridiculous backhand feed setting up Conor Sheary for a second-period tap-in and his secondary assist helping Phil Kessel score to make it 5-0.
Overall, it was a fascinating night for No. 87 for far more than flashy plays.
In the first period, he got locked in a scrum with P.K. Subban behind the Predators’ net that lasted several seconds as referee Brad Meier inexplicably stood and watched. Subban had Crosby’s leg locked but Crosby was on top and drove Subban’s head into the ice several times.
“He lost his stick and he was doing some UFC move on my foot there,” Crosby said. “I don’t know what he was trying to do.”
Both players got minors for holding. It was certainly not a great look for Crosby, a player whose career has been dotted by multiple concussions, to push an opponent’s head to the ice repeatedly. Imagine the uproar from Penguins fans — and from certain segments of the Canadian media — if any player did that to No. 87.
Said a disgusted Nashville coach Peter Laviolette: “I don’t understand it. I saw my guy’s head get cross-checked into the ice 10 times.”
Added Subban: “At the end of the day, I’ve just got to play the game and play the game hard. … It’s up to the official to call it. If they don’t, then you just got to move forward.”
Shortly before Kessel scored in the second period, Crosby appeared to toss a water bottle on to the ice from the Pittsburgh bench. It harmlessly slid past Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm and GIF files that flew across social media showed Crosby giving the I-didn’t-mean-to-do-it while talking on the bench to teammates like backup goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
“I made a gesture and it came flying out of my hand. I didn’t try to throw it,” Crosby said in, frankly, less-than-believable fashion. “I know it ends up on the ice but I wouldn’t start throwing water bottles at this point. .. I think we had a good chance and thought we drew a penalty, thought there was a penalty there. To be honest I can’t even tell you the specific play but I remember being surprised when it comes out of my hand. I have a better arm than that anyway.”
Crosby said he apologized to the officials about the incident and said it was unintentional. Hmmmm. It’s stuff like that which drives hockey fans crazy when it comes to Crosby. And with good reason. Just ask Ryan O’Reilly and Ottawa’s Marc Methot. Still, it hard to argue the results and the position he has put the Penguins in again.
“You can see his desire in his day to day approach,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “What I really admire and respect about Sid is not only is he a talented player. I just think he has such a drive to be the best and is willing to do what it takes. He controls everything in his power to be the very best.
“He sets such an example for the rest of the group on how to control what you can to give yourself every chance to be successful. I think Sid really understands the opportunity this team has. He’s a driven athlete, as hungry as I’ve seen a player.”
Now things get dicey again for the Penguins. The home team has an incredible 24-6 advantage in goals thus far in the series. Matt Murray, whipped for nine goals in the two games in Nashville, bounced back with a 24-save shutout here as the Penguins set a franchise mark with their 10th home win of the playoffs.
Rinne, meanwhile was gone after the first period, pulled in favor of Juuse Saros for the second time in the series. Rinne has downright comical numbers in the three games here, with a 5.41 goals-against average and .756 save percentage.
Here’s one last number to ponder: Teams that have lost a game by six goals or more in the playoffs this year are 3-0 in the next game. More recent history for Crosby to try to overcome.
“The way we played tonight, if we can build off that momentum, that’s important,” Crosby said. “But we know we’re going to face a desperate team. We’ve already played two games there and know the atmosphere and know how much they feed off their fans. So we still got a lot of work to be done here.”