Kovacevic: Still waiting on Crosby, Malkin
COLUMBUS, Ohio — I don't care, honestly, that Rob Scuderi has been reduced to a rusty turnstile. Or that Kris Letang is a botched assignment or bad penalty waiting to happen. Or that Craig Adams no longer can cover his quadrant on a penalty kill. Or that third- and fourth-liners keep taking stupid offensive-zone penalties. Or that Chris Kunitz and James Neal are looking up at a lot of third- and fourth-liners on the scoring list. Or even that Dan Bylsma braincramped after a strong start to his playoffs by getting greedy with a four-forward power play.
And I most definitely don't care about all the “desperation” and other intangible trivia Kunitz and Paul Martin brought up Sunday at the Penguins' media availability.
Because the cold fact is, as these Penguins brace on this Monday for Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the most important NHL game played in Ohio since ... um, ever ... there always have been only three players in this era of Pittsburgh hockey who truly matter toward the broader cause of winning the Stanley Cup.
No. 1, and with a bullet on position alone, is Marc-Andre Fleury. And to his credit, he's been plenty good enough so far in this round. Never mind the seven goals on 79 shots. He almost singlehandedly kept Game 2 on life support. He was no less sharp in Game 1. There's legit cause to believe he at least has begun burying his playoff demons.
The other two, of course, are the best players in the world.
They really are the best, too. I believe that about Sidney Crosby now more than ever. And Evgeni Malkin has shared that rare air with Crosby more often than anyone else in the world over their shared time in the league. They're 1 and 1A, no questions asked.
Well, except this: How long until we again see their best when it counts?
Crosby has three assists through two games, which sounds fine except if one sees more than scoring summaries. He's been charged with six giveaways, or one fewer than the entire Columbus roster. He has registered six total shots, or one for every 10 shifts. He is dangling on the perimeter, aiming for across-the-box passes that wouldn't amount to much even if they connected, pretty much looking like … well, anyone else out there.
Todd Richards, the Blue Jackets' coach, was asked why he stopped shadowing Crosby with uber-pest Brandon Dubinsky early in Game 2. His response was as damning as it gets: “Once we got going, I saw the success of other guys against Crosby, and I didn't feel the need to chase the matchup.”
All of which would be fine if Crosby was just anyone else. Or these were just any other two games through Edmonton and Calgary. But he isn't, and they aren't.
Malkin has been no better. He's got two assists, two giveaways, nine shots and, generally, has looked nothing like “The Bully,” the nickname his teammates playfully apply when he's in a foul-mood-fueled hyperdrive.
If not now, then when?
Seriously, this isn't just about a couple of games:
• Neither Crosby nor Malkin has scored in the Penguins' past six playoff games. In that span, which is more like seven games when overtimes are weighed, they have combined for five assists.
• In playoff series in which the Penguins were eliminated since winning the Cup in 2009 — not including 2011, when Crosby and Malkin were hurt — Crosby had 13 points in 17 games, Malkin 11 points in 17 games.
• The most recent playoff game-winning goal for both came in 2010, Crosby against Ottawa and Malkin against Montreal.
• Crosby never has scored in a playoff OT and — get this — has one third-period goal in his past 30 playoff games!
Save any deeper analysis, please. The best players have to be the best players. Maybe not every game or even every series. But it's an absolute must for Cup contention.
Save the excuses, too. Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, the two greatest players in franchise history, rose up to the biggest games. Those guys were shadowed, too. They were beaten up, too. And yet, they never were passengers while a Brandon Sutter or Matt Niskanen carried the load. But for the rarest of exceptions, they were front and center, stood their tallest.
Crosby was referring to the Penguins as a whole late Saturday when he said: “We've got to be better. That's really, I think, the bottom line.” But he might just as well have been speaking about the two at the top.
Beginning in Game 3, their participation no longer is optional, if it ever was.