Let’s be clear about something right off the hop: Sidney Crosby never left.
Sure, a few shiny new toys named Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews dramatically burst onto the scene in recent years to tear up the record books and absorb all the media attention for their nightly showcases of on-ice wizardry. But Crosby has only continued to chug along at his typically elite clip throughout this, quietly scoring at his highest per-game rate this season since 2018-19 with an impressive 84 points in 69 games despite starting the year on the injured reserve.
Crosby’s place among the NHL’s elite was never in doubt. He may no longer be the league’s consensus top player as he was during his prime, but he’s certainly keeping himself, at the very least, in the vicinity of the conversation — even at 34 years old.
What he’s managed to do through the first four games of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, however, should thrust him right back into the middle of it.
The Penguins rode into the playoffs this year on a cloud of dour pessimism.
The depleted group that fought injuries and health scares all year long dropped 11 of its final 17 games to cap off the season, nine of which came in regulation, all while their starting goaltender succumbed to yet another serious ailment at the worst possible moment before one of their franchise pillars earned himself a four-game suspension.
Ceding home-ice advantage to the rival New York Rangers and their Vezina-favorite puck-stopper was merely the icing on this very sad cake, plunging expectations among the Pittsburgh fanbase to a season-low.
Then Crosby re-entered the fray, as he’s want to do, and has proceeded to drag them back up into the stratosphere.
No one should be surprised. And yet, we still are.
Crosby has turned back the clock through four games of postseason action thus far. The pride of Cole Harbour has carried the Penguins to an improbable 3-1 series lead against the higher-seeded Rangers, with Crosby’s nine points in four games landing him just one point shy of the league lead, while his seven assists pace the field.
Vintage Crosby is a transcendent player — good enough to plaster over other would-be fatal roster flaws such as relying on third-stringer Louis Domingue, minutes removed from devouring a full meal, as your goaltending savior.
Credit to Domingue, of course, whose .906 save percentage through four appearances and three starts is better than anyone could’ve expected. But few teams would be able to weather the losses the Penguins have been dealt and still sit poised to knock off the 110-point Rangers in five games.
A team with Sidney Crosby can. That’s what he brings at the height of his powers.
But it hasn’t just been box-score gold that Crosby has spun. No, Crosby’s underlying numbers illustrate a player who, while carrying the second-largest even-strength workload of any Penguins forward, has completely and utterly dominated the opposition in every facet of the game whenever he’s stepped on the ice.
In over 73 minutes of even-strength ice time to this point in the series, Crosby’s ridiculous 73.26 percent scoring-chance share is exceeded only by his otherworldly 76.67 percent expected-goals share.
Those are some gaudy numbers. But math can be confusing, so it’s important to break down just what exactly they mean.
Despite drawing the toughest matchups his opponent can possibly throw at him, Crosby’s play has tilted the ice in Pittsburgh’s favor when it comes to scoring chance generation and the possession game for roughly 75 percent of his overall even-strength usage. And considering how Crosby has logged more even-strength minutes than all but one of his fellow forwards, the Penguins essentially control the two most vital facets of play for a staggering chunk of each contest — earning the series lead to show for it.
Factor in all situations outside of five-on-five, and Crosby’s workload only grows to his heaviest in well over a decade. But he’s shown no signs of slowing down in spite of this, only getting better and elevating his play at the precise moment the Penguins needed him to.
He’s once again given the Pittsburgh faithful a hero. The same hero they’ve relied on for the past 15 years and counting.
That’s what Crosby does. When the odds are the longest, and when onlookers have counted him out, Sid the Kid finds a way to reach new levels that few thought possible.
These playoffs have showcased exactly that. And the most terrifying part is, he’s only getting started. Again.