PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby slid across the goal mouth on his backside, futilely trying to extend a game that was already over.
The Pittsburgh Penguins star didn’t come close to stopping Benoit Pouliot’s slap shot from in close, a goal that wasn’t even necessary after replays showed Derick Brassard flipped in the overtime winner moments earlier. New York edged the Penguins 3-2 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday night.
While the barely rested but hardly bothered Rangers sprinted onto the ice in jubilation, Crosby trudged off to the dressing room after a 12th straight postseason game came and went without the best player in hockey finding the back of the net.
The NHL’s leading scorer during the regular season insists he’s healthy. Maybe, but the burst and creativity that have become his trademarks appear to be missing.
“You have to make sure you learn from it and make sure you’re better in the next one,” Crosby said. “You have to get better as the playoffs go on.”
That hasn’t happened yet for Crosby, who has played 327 shifts spanning more than 275 minutes — the equivalent of more than 4 ½ games — since he beat Ottawa’s Craig Anderson in the third period of a Game 5 victory in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals for his 40th career playoff goal.
While the MVP finalist had six assists in Pittsburgh’s opening round win over Columbus, he was the primary setup man on only two of them.
Coach Dan Bylsma is quick to point out Crosby helped create 27 even-strength scoring chances against the Blue Jackets. Yet Crosby looked out of sorts at times in Game 1 against New York.
Three times during a Pittsburgh power play in the first period Crosby found himself standing in front of the Rangers net with the puck bouncing at his feet. Three times it skittered away out of danger.
“We just (have to) make sure we’re playing on our toes,” Crosby said. “You have to expect they’re going to get chances but make sure we’re aggressive and creating things ourselves.”
The Rangers don’t exactly make it easy. New York has two shutdown defensive pairings, a luxury this time of year. On Friday night Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi split time with Anton Stralman and Marc Staal trying to keep Crosby bottled up.
All four are playing so well coach Alain Vigneault doesn’t worry too much about trying to get a specific matchup. At the moment, either way the Rangers are good.
“We’re lucky to have such a deep team right now,” Girardi said. “That’s going to go a long way in the playoffs if we have a long playoff run.”
New York has never beaten Pittsburgh in the playoffs. The 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series is the first time the Rangers have even been in front of the Penguins at any point. In the midst of a stretch in which they’ll play five games in a week, New York didn’t exactly look exhausted. Save for a second period in which Pittsburgh dominated to erase a two-goal deficit, the Rangers were sharp and confident.
Who needs rest when you’ve got adrenaline and momentum?
“Sometimes too long of a break can get you a little rusty,” Pouliot said.
No chance of that happening for New York. Instead, it’s the Penguins and their captain who looked sluggish in the opener. Pittsburgh didn’t get going until after the Penguins spotted the Rangers two goals.
The comeback wasn’t triggered by Crosby, though Bylsma did play Crosby and Evgeni Malkin together at points, hoping to generate a spark.
It worked in Game 6 against Columbus, when Malkin ended a lengthy drought of his own and got his second career playoff hat trick as Pittsburgh advanced. Not so much this time.
Crosby’s biggest play may have been taking out a Rangers defenseman during a late breakout in the waning seconds of regulation. That play ended with Lee Stempniak firing wide of the New York net at the end of a makeshift 2 on 1.
If the shot goes in, the Penguins win and Crosby’s streak isn’t an issue. Yet it remains at 40 shots and counting, even if Bylsma insists his team doesn’t need Crosby to consistently turn on the red goal lamp for Pittsburgh to play solid hockey.
“Really it’s about winning for us and about winning for Sid,” Bylsma said. “We did that in the first round and last night we did not.”
Now the Penguins find themselves on the brink of falling down 2-0 to a team that never threatened them for the Metropolitan Division title. The last time Pittsburgh came back from a two-game deficit in a series was against Washington in the 2009 Eastern semifinals.
The Penguins won their third Stanley Cup that year. Crosby scored 15 times in 24 games. Right now, his team would settle for just one.
“It’s not just going to be a freewheeling scoring chance and get an easy tap in, or 2 on 1s,” Bylsma said. “We’ve got to fight through it with how we play and how he plays knowing that that’s going to be the case.”