The Pittsburgh Penguins are officially in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second-straight season, awaiting the winner of the Boston-Carolina series.
After an intense, back-and-forth series that saw four road wins, the Penguins made Game Seven an entirely different game from the rest of the series, scoring quickly and early and never letting up. The win, and most of Pittsburgh’s success, came on the shoulders of captain Sidney Crosby.
The rivalry between the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and Crosby had almost already reached the boiling point even before they met each other in the postseason for the first time. Unlike the quiet, reserved Crosby, Ovechkin had his face plastered all over the national media, interviewed for ESPN and talked brashly of how he enjoys getting under Crosby’s skin.
It almost became a pure media creation that Ovechkin held the advantage in the series over Crosby, although there was no clear favorite.
Ovechkin’s prodigious goal-scoring and all-around skills were certainly on display in the series, as well as his extravagant theatrics. But Crosby let his play on the ice do all the talking, as the Penguins won 6-2, at one point scoring two goals in an eight-second span.
The decisive game of this series, built up like a monumental clash of the irresistible force and the immovable object, was never close.
Washington had the higher seed, but that appeared to be the only real advantage they had. Even after winning the first two games of the series, Crosby had established his dominance while Evgeni Malkin lay dormant.
Once Malkin woke up from the doldrums with his outstanding Game Three performance, the Penguins took off, winning four of the final five games in the series. But, make no mistake, their surge is due overwhelmingly to the performance of Crosby.
The 21-year-old Penguins captain has scored 21 points in 13 postseason games with a +6 rating, and is leaving his peers in awe of his acumen as a player and presence at such a young age.
“He’s unbelievable,” Craig Adams told Adam Kimelman of NHL.com, “I’ve had the opportunity to play with some pretty good players, and the one thing they all share in common is they’re ultra, ultra competitive.
"Sid’s a pretty soft-spoken guy and he’s not going to come out and make this series about him and Ovechkin, but he’s a competitive guy. You know he wants to win. I thought he was just unbelievable every game.”
Primarily known for his elite playmaking ability, Crosby took scoring matters into his own hands, scoring eight goals in the seven-game series. He had a hat trick in the Game Two defeat and four goals on the powerplay. He shot an incredible 25 percent, and seemed to always be in the right place at the right time when the puck was around the net.
In four games at Washington, Crosby scored the game’s first goal. He opened the scoring in Game Seven with a rebound of a Sergei Gonchar shot, which he kicked to his stick and fired point-blank past Simeon Varlamov, who was pulled in the second period after allowing his fourth goal.
“He goes into the dirty areas to score goals; he scores big goals,” Penguins play-by-play commentator Bob Errey told NHL.com, "We didn’t know what he’d do in a Game Seven, but we’re not surprised by what he’s doing here. I’m not surprised.”
The Bruins and Hurricanes both now know who they will have to worry about the most when the winner of their series moves on. Guys like Malkin, Sergei Gonchar, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury are no one to ignore, but for either team, there will be a definite Plan A: contain Crosby.
I say “contain,” because it looks like Sid the Kid can’t be stopped. Though he has yet to win a Cup and has two more rounds to get through this season, he is quickly establishing himself as the league’s most dominant player.
“He’s the leader of the hockey club,” Errey said. “If there’s one player I want, if you give me that vote today, I’ll take Sidney Crosby.”