Penguins Prove They Can Win on Sidney Crosby's Off-Nights vs. Blue Jackets

Dave LozoNHL National Lead WriterApril 17, 2014

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Sidney Crosby wasn't invisible Wednesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, although it may have taken a magnifying glass or microscope to spot him at times.

The presumptuous Hart Trophy winner was a non-factor throughout the game—Crosby was on the ice for an even-strength and shorthanded goal against and only two of his six shot attempts made it on net, and that's with an official scorer generously crediting him with a shot on goal on an attempt that missed the net by 5 feet—and the Blue Jackets laid hit after hit on him throughout the contest.

Despite the game's best player coming up mostly empty in Game 1 of the first-round series, the Penguins found a way to come from behind to defeat the Blue Jackets 4-3 thanks largely to contributions from role players that were sorely lacking through most of the regular season.

Sidney Crosby, Game 1 vs. Blue Jackets

That's why, even with Crosby not at his best, this is such a positive victory for the Penguins.

When the Penguins found themselves in the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Bruins last year, sure, the scoring dried up completely with two goals in the four-game sweep. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were held off the scoresheet completely by the suffocating Bruins defense and there was zero support from the Penguins' depth scoring in that series.

That problem carried over to this regular season, where the Penguins were extremely reliant on Crosby to generate points if they wanted to win games. When Crosby had at least a point in a game this season, the Penguins were 48-9-5; when Crosby was held scoreless, the Penguins were 3-15-1.

For a little context, fellow Hart candidates Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks and Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers, the second- and third-leading scorers in the NHL this season, respectively, didn't have splits as severe as Crosby. When Getzlaf failed to score a point, the Ducks went 11-8-2; when Giroux failed to score a point, the Flyers went 8-15-6.

Teams will always lose more often when their superstars falter, but no team was more dependent on a single player this season than the Penguins were on Crosby.

Crosby didn't come up completely empty against the Blue Jackets, as he squeezed out a mundane secondary assist on a Matt Niskanen power-play goal in the second period. So, while the Penguins didn't figure out a way to win when the game's best player put up a goose egg, they did earn a victory when the game's best player laid an egg.

The Penguins got goals from Jussi Jokinen, Beau Bennett and Brandon Sutter, who scored the winner with 11:42 remaining in the third period. Those are three massive goals from players who ranked seventh, eighth and ninth among Penguins forwards in ice time per game this season. It was much-needed depth scoring in a game the Penguins were stung by more than just Crosby's off-game.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's performance shouldn't be classified as terrible or worrisome, but he certainly wasn't at his best in his first postseason start since being benched in the first round of the playoffs last year. Fleury was deked out of position by Jack Johnson on the game's first goal and couldn't get across to stop Mark Letestu on a goal that gave the Jackets a 2-1 lead after one period.

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 16:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins moves the puck up ice during the second period against the Columbus Blue Jackets on April 16 2014 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Derek MacKenzie scored a shorthanded breakaway goal 43 seconds into the second period after Kris Letang had a horrible gaffe in the neutral zone. Again, it was a difficult save for Fleury to make but he needs to make those saves a lot more often if the Penguins fancy themselves Stanley Cup contenders.

"I did, yeah," Fleury said afterward during his postgame press conference when asked if he had nerves in the first period. "I think most guys do when the playoffs start. It was a rough start a little bit, gave up two goals in the first. I just tried to stay calm and stay with it. The more shots came, the more comfortable I felt. It just feels great to win that one."

None of it mattered against the Blue Jackets on Wednesday, as goals from three players with a combined cap hit a shade under $6 million erased the 3-1 deficit and gave the Penguins a much-needed win to start this seven-game series.

"I thought it was a good for Beau Bennett," Bylsma told reporters after the game of his line shuffling that moved Bennett from the first line to the third line. "When he played with Sutter and (Lee) Stempniak, it was a formidable line. They had the game-winning goal with Beau passing to Sutter for the game-winning goal, so I liked what Beau brought to the third line."

It's not a recipe for long-term success, but the Penguins should feel good knowing they can find a way to win if their best player isn't at his best.


Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

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