Crosby hat trick leads Pens to win
TAMPA – Sidney Crosby has won the MVP once.
“Really?” Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said after Crosby scored three goals and set up the winner in the Penguins' 5-4 victory over the Lightning at Tampa Bay Times Forum on Saturday night.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik, who scored in the regular season for the first time since Nov. 1, 2011, has a working theory.
“His health,” Orpik said. “Every year he hasn't won it's been because he wasn't healthy.
“I thought he was the MVP last year, but some people thought he didn't play enough games. So, whatever.”
A puck – originally shot off Orpik's stick blade but deflected by a New York Islanders' player – cracked Crosby on the jaw with about a month remaining before the Stanley Cup playoffs last season. Until then Crosby was leading a charge toward seemingly everything: the MVP, the scoring title, the Cup.
He never looked himself after the jaw was broken, which is to suggest that he never consistently dominated upon returning from a couple of oral surgeries.
A shocking four-game sweep from the Eastern Conference final by Boston, a series in which Crosby failed to produce a point, led to some off-season advice from general manager Ray Shero.
Crosby's critics would come at him for the way his season ended, and Shero suggested his captain consider that fair game.
The standard of judgment is not fair for the best player in the world, and Shero was proven correct when NHL Awards were dolled out in late June.
Crosby finished tied for third in regular-season scoring, but he missed 12 games – 25 percent of the 48-constest scheduled – and that absence was enough for a majority of hockey writers to look elsewhere for their MVP.
The Penguins have opened this season with four wins in five games, and Crosby has played a part in nine of their 20 goals – scoring five, assisting on four others.
“Really, I just try to be the best that I can every year,” Crosby said Saturday night after recording his eighth hat trick and first since Dec. 2, 2010 – about a month before his world was rocked by concussion symptoms that lingered until March 2012.
“Going to the front of the net, keeping my feet moving, helping us get better by playing good defense – I'm focused on those things, not the other stuff that I can't control.”
Tampa Bay carried a 3-2 lead into the third period on Saturday night, but could not control Crosby. He scored twice with 11 minutes to pull the Penguins even then give them a lead.
A late Lightning goal – by center Alex Killorn on the power play, upon which Tampa Bay Scored twice – caused a stir on the Penguins' bench.
It did not cause panic.
A final-minute tripping penalty by winger Richard Panik placed the Lightning on the penalty kill, and 38 seconds later defenseman Matt Niskanen's shot sent the Penguins out of the Sunshine State with a split of the two-game road trip.
That was Niskanen's first goal, but his fifth point.
He has not made anybody forget injured defenseman Kris Letang, but Niskanen has helped the Penguins stay strong without their Norris Trophy finalist.
Paired with free-agent returnee Rob Scuderi, Niskanen has played in all situations and matched the scoring pace of Letang, who was the only NHL defenseman to average a point-per-game last season.
Crosby averaged 1.55 points-per-game last season with 56 in 36 games.
His early pace this season is 1.8 – a territory reserved only for the Wayne Gretzkys and Mario Lemieuxs of this hockey world.
Those icons are to whom Crosby has been compared since before the Penguins won a lottery in July 2005 for the right to select him first overall in the Entry Draft.
He played a few months later, starting his rookie season with a point in six consecutive games.
Those Penguins, Crosby reminded on Saturday night, did not win until their ninth game.
He could not control that losing any more than he can MVP votes by writers.
“I don't know what people need to see, but look at this game,” Fleury said. “It's crazy. There are (10 combined power plays). The puck is bouncing off people. Leads aren't safe.
“All I'm thinking is I just need to keep us within a goal, because we have him – and he always gives us a chance.”