In the 2014-15 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are seeing key players like Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury play some of the best hockey of their careers. But it won't mean much at playoff time if Sidney Crosby can't rediscover his scoring touch.
After four goals in Pittsburgh's first three games and seven in the first eight, last season's Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner has scored just four more times in his subsequent 29 games.
That's troubling. Time and time again over the years, the Penguins have seen their fortunes fade when Sid's not successfully pulling the trigger.
Last season was a clear example. Crosby was leading the scoring race with 34 goals and 60 assists when the Penguins dropped a 1-0 decision to the St. Louis Blues in their 71st game of the season on March 23. We learned later that Crosby also injured his wrist that night on a hit from Ryan Reaves.
The Penguins captain still finished the season at the top of the scoring race with 104 points, but he missed two games in the late going and put up just two goals and eight assists in the nine games that he did play—below his season averages, especially on the goal side.
Crosby's lack of production became even more apparent in the playoffs, where he scored just once before Pittsburgh was eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinal by the New York Rangers.
The previous year, Pittsburgh faced a similar situation in the 2013 playoffs. Crosby was a force with seven goals and eight points as the Penguins rolled over the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators in the first two rounds.
But as soon as the Boston Bruins were able to shut him down in the Eastern Conference Final, none of his teammates could pick up the slack. The suddenly impotent Penguins mustered just two goals in four games before going down to defeat.
An optimist might argue that this year's Penguins team isn't all about Crosby—it's Evgeni Malkin who has been the team's MVP up front through the first half of 2014-15.
Through 40 games, Malkin is ranked fourth in the NHL in scoring and leads the Penguins in goals (18), points (45) and power-play goals (8).
Twenty-eight-year-old Malkin has been here before—at a crucial time. Malkin won his first Art Ross Trophy as NHL scoring champion in 2008-09, the year Pittsburgh went on to win the Stanley Cup. His 113 points that year beat out Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (110) and Crosby, who ended the season with 103 points.
Malkin was also a more dominant force than Crosby during the playoff run that year. He led the postseason in scoring with 36 points, five more than Crosby, and earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player. History shows that Malkin's contribution has led to Pittsburgh success.
Today, he's still important, as is Marc-Andre Fleury, who's also having a career year. So is the fresh supporting cast that new general manager Jim Rutherford has assembled around his stars.
But Crosby's the key. The Penguins are not the Canadian Olympic Team, deep enough in talent and leadership to win even when the captain isn't on his game. Pittsburgh needs a fully functioning Crosby to bring out the best in his new right-winger David Perron. Crosby also enhances the team's top power-play unit, which has gone just 4-of-58 in 19 games since Nov. 26—a dismal success rate of 6.9 percent.
Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review says Crosby "clearly isn't right (presumably because of a lingering wrist injury)." If Rossi's correct, and it's the same wrist issue that hampered Crosby last spring, it looks like last summer's rehab program didn't strengthen the wrist sufficiently to stand up to the grind of day-to-day life in the NHL.
The Penguins need to get proactive. It's tough to shelve a key player during the regular season, especially with all the injuries the Penguins have already had this year. And Crosby's the type to keep his issues to himself and play through them.
But would the Penguins rather have a subpar Crosby in the lineup in January or a healthy one in May and June?
Heading into games on Jan. 10, the Penguins have dropped one point behind the New York Islanders into second place in the Metropolitan Division. They're just four points ahead of the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers, who are both surging.
If the team's cushion in the standings was bigger, sending Crosby off to look after himself should be a no-brainer. But in the age of parity, every game counts, even in the dog days of January and February.
It's unrealistic to think that Crosby's about to take three months off to have surgery on a nagging issue that he thinks he can play through. But his stat line indicates that he does need help.
Now that the Penguins injured-reserve list is starting to shrink, the team's medical staff needs to go to Alert Status Red to help Crosby rehab and maintain his banged-up body. The Penguins need him scoring goals—now and in the playoffs.