Commentary

Crosby's scoring struggles baffling

Updated: May 4, 2014, 1:35 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- It is human nature, at least human hockey nature, to ascribe too much importance to one game in a playoff series, especially the first game in a best-of-seven series.

And so, whether you are a New York Ranger and part of a team that earned a 1-0 series lead, thanks to Derick Brassard's overtime winner in Game 1 on Friday night, or part of a Pittsburgh Penguins squad that seemed ill-prepared to start this series but rebounded with long stretches of dominance in a losing effort, a little perspective is important.

And while perspective is also needed in discussing the current status of Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and his pivotal role on this team in these playoffs, one thing that remains perfectly in focus is the fact that Crosby isn't where he wants to be or his team needs him to be.

When an elite player goes through a stretch in which he doesn't produce in the way that history suggests he can, it provides a convenient storyline, even if scoring goals does not necessarily tell the story of his value to a team.

This is especially true of Crosby, who does many things that aren't necessarily reflected on the score sheet. We recall his effort in getting back on defense late in the Columbus Blue Jackets series in the first round to break up a 2-on-1. He won a faceoff that led directly to a Chris Kunitz goal, even though he didn't end up earning an assist for his efforts.

Crosby said he doesn't think about it much once a game starts. He did admit that sometimes you can start to think too much about where to go to be in a position to score.

"Sometimes I think you can overthink it," he said Sunday.

It's better to just go out and play, he added.

And yet there is also something that seems missing at this stage from his game. His explosiveness, his ability to drive past defenders or to create time and space with which to make plays is not where it has been when he's at his best.

On Friday he was on the ice for all three of the Rangers' goals in the Penguins' 3-2 loss and was held without a point. The game marked the 12th straight postseason game without a goal for Crosby.

Although Crosby was not available on Saturday, it is a recurring theme when he meets with the press, which he continues to do unfailingly, often sitting through two media scrums -- one for broadcast journalists another for print -- sometimes twice a day.

"I don't sense anything from him, to be honest with you," offered Craig Adams, who has played with Crosby since joining the Penguins in 2009, a few months before the team won a Stanley Cup. "I can make assumptions. I don't know that that's necessarily a smart thing to do.

"I know from experience that guys that score goals like to score goals. And I'm sure he's no different, but at the same time Sid's shown a lot; I think that he understands that, well, first of all winning's most important and that goes without saying. If we win it doesn't really matter. But I think for sure he'd like to score a goal. I'm just guessing, throwing it out there."

Adams, like any of Crosby's teammates who are asked about the star center, remain unconcerned about the scoring drought. That comes from watching Crosby's work ethic and his multifaceted skill set.

"He can do a lot of other things," Adams said. "Obviously, he's a great playmaker and we've been seeing that throughout the playoffs. Made a couple of great passes [Friday] night that could have ended up in their net. Typically good in the circle. He's just a smart player, so whether he's scoring or not, he's someone you want to have on the ice."

[+] EnlargeRick Nash, Sidney Crosby
Gregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesBlanket coverage typical of the playoffs hasn't helped Sidney Crosby's scoring woes.

Lee Stempniak has been playing on Crosby's right side for much of the playoffs, and he was asked about the recent scoring issues of both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who broke out in Game 6 of the first round with a hat trick, his first goals of the postseason.

"I don't think anyone's really worried about Sid or Geno," said Stempniak. "They're great players, even if Sid hasn't scored. He's setting up plays. He draws so many guys that it creates room for Chris [Kunitz] and I. I'm not worried. I know it's going to come. It's one of those things ... you want to get them the puck because they do such good things but, especially in the playoffs, it's magnified how they're being covered, how they're being checked. It's on us to step up and use that extra ice, that extra room, and make plays, too."

Fair or not, the standard Crosby has established for himself by virtue of long periods of play that earned him the title as the best player in the world is one that is difficult to maintain, but it is nonetheless expected. And with the Penguins down 1-0 in this series, the need for him to return to that standard is even more imperative. If he can't, it seems almost certain the New York Rangers will win this series.

Crosby's history is marked by moments, sometimes short and dramatic, such as his overtime game winner in the gold-medal game in 2010 or his goal in the gold-medal game in Sochi a few months back that paced Canada to two straight Olympic titles. There have been long periods of play that have defied description. Yet recent history suggests something amiss, and it's in stark contrast to those otherworldly moments most people associate Crosby with.

There is the current playoff drought, but there's also the fact Crosby scored in just one of the Penguins' final 10 regular-season games. The Penguins' recent playoff history is marked by a plethora of one-goal games. That Crosby hasn't been able to deliver goals in those games has at least on some level contributed to the team's lack of success in those games. This spring, for instance, the Pens have played in six one-goal games and they have won exactly half of them. Coach Dan Bylsma said Crosby had 27 even-strength scoring chances during the first round, but they have talked about how difficult it is to score in the playoffs and that it's not going to come easily.

"That's something we know and have acknowledged," Bylsma said. "Staying focused, staying playing your game, staying at that level is where his focus is at, knowing that it's hard and it's not just going to be a free-wheeling scoring chance and get an easy tap-in or a 2-on-1. It's going to be hard and that's what we're expecting and what he's expecting, and, frankly, we've got to fight through it. We've got to fight through it with how we play and how he plays, knowing that that's going to be the case."

That said, the fact that the questions continue to follow a similar pattern -- what is wrong with Crosby, when will he score again, etc. -- isn't much of a surprise to Bylsma.

"I think sometimes they want the game to be decided just by Sidney Crosby scoring a goal, and that hasn't been the case, so they ask the questions, but really it's no more than about winning for us and about winning for Sid," Bylsma said. "We did that in the first round and [Friday] night we did not. We're down 1-0 against that team and those questions are going to come and they're going to come about all of us and, from that standpoint, I can understand them."

Former NHL GM Craig Button believes that it may be a case of Crosby trying to do too much.

"He's got an engine that fires," Button told ESPN.com. "He's got big horsepower in there. He is a player that is always, always going."

But sometimes -- and this might be one of those times -- perhaps the fire burns too hot and he needs to step back, to take a deep breath in order to be at his most effective.

"I think that Sidney Crosby, I think that his competitiveness, it's hard to say gets the better of him, but when he doesn't get results, I think he even tries to try harder, if that's possible," Button said.

There is a lot of external pressure on the Penguins, whether it's on Bylsma or netminder Marc-Andre Fleury or the team as a whole as it tries to recapture its Stanley Cup form last seen in 2009.

"Who takes on the brunt of that?" Button said. "I think that's Sidney Crosby."

Button recalled a play in Game 1 against the Rangers when Kunitz beat a Rangers defender and the puck came to where Crosby would normally be, but he wasn't there.

"He looked like he wasn't sure," Button said. "He's a thinker, you know that. I think that it's just off by a little bit."

How Crosby moves forward will say much about the outcome of this series. As Button noted, when he's on his game, Crosby has the ability to separate his team from the competition. But if he's not on his game, it acts as an impetus for the competition.

"I think that it narrows the gaps between the competition and I think it gives the competition real hope, to say, hey, listen we can win this series," Button said.

This series is just one game old, but with back-to-back games Sunday and Monday, it is also a series that has the potential to get out of hand quickly for the Penguins, who face what is almost a must-win situation in Game 2 on Sunday night. So, yes, perspective is important. So, too, is the importance of the return of the old Sidney Crosby to the Penguins' chances of further success this spring.

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