With Penguins on the cusp of another Stanley Cup, Sidney Crosby is again the center of attention

Between the water bottle that flew onto the ice, the repeated shoving of Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban’s head and the dazzling three-assist performance, Sidney Crosby’s presence in the NHL for the past decade was on full display in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final. Crosby again showed why he’s the undisputed best player in the league and also the bane of many opposing fan bases.

He was Thursday night’s top performer and also something of a pest. But after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 6-0 rout of the Predators, Crosby is now one win away from a third Stanley Cup, and approval ratings don’t matter much in that elite company of winners.

Just 33 seconds into the game, Crosby split the defense and shot a puck off the post, drawing a penalty by Nashville’s Ryan Ellis in the process. The Penguins scored on the ensuing power play as Crosby set up Justin Schultz, and Pittsburgh comfortably rolled from there with three goals in the first period that chased goaltender Pekka Rinne from the game.

“Well, I just think from the opening shift, you can see his drive and his appetite to win,” Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan told reporters. “He sets the tone right off the bat.”

Perhaps it sparked Crosby’s star teammates Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, who had fielded some criticism after not scoring a point in Games 3 or 4 of the series. On Wednesday, Malkin guaranteed that Kessel would score in Game 5 and added that “it’s time” for his own best game to arrive, too. Malkin scored to make it a 3-0 game and then he assisted on Kessel’s first goal of the series, making good on his confident comments the day before.

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But even Malkin and Kessel finding the score sheet again couldn’t steal the spotlight from Crosby. He and Subban have been embroiled in an epic Listerine controversy after Subban alleged that Crosby told him his breath smelled during Game 3 and Crosby later denied it. On Thursday night, the chirps between the two advanced to physicality when they got tangled behind the goal line, and Crosby pushed Subban’s head into the ice several times.

Predators Coach Peter Laviolette was unhappy that both players received holding penalties. Malkin scored during the four-on-four to give the Penguins a 3-0 lead.

“I don’t understand it. I really don’t understand the call. I saw my guy get his head cross-checked into the ice 10 times,” Laviolette said after the game on Thursday night. “I don’t even know what he did, P.K. I’m not sure. I disagree with the call.”

Said Crosby: “He lost his stick. … He was doing some kind of UFC move on my foot. I don’t know what he was trying to do. I was trying to get out of there. He had lost his stick. He’s just trying to hold me down. I don’t know what he was trying to do with my ankle. I was in some kind of lock there. I don’t know what it was.”

Crosby’s eventful night continued in the second period when he was displeased with what he thought was a missed call and then appeared to purposefully throw a water bottle onto the ice during play out of frustration. Crosby wasn’t penalized for the action, and after the game, he said that while it “looked bad,” the water bottle toss was unintentional.

It won’t endear Crosby to Predators fans as the series shifts back to Nashville for Game 6 on Sunday night. But with four Stanley Cup final appearances in 12 seasons and two championships already, Crosby has nothing to prove at this point. He now has 27 points in 23 games this postseason. A third trophy would just add to an already great legacy, one that will be remembered much more than how polarizing he can be in some games.

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“I think Sid really understands the opportunity that this team has, and he’s not taking anything for granted,” Sullivan said. “He’s as driven an athlete as I’ve seen. He’s as hungry as I’ve seen a player, and I just think he understands it. He sees the opportunity in front of us, and he’s doing everything within his power to try to help us be successful.”