NASHVILLE – Chris Kunitz knows Sidney Crosby. Knows him as a linemate, knows him as a teammate, knows him off the ice as a friend. Knows that when the Pittsburgh Penguins need an effort from Crosby like the one they received in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, they’ll get it.
“May be the best working hockey player out there. Somebody who’s going out there to drive your team in any way, in every facet that he can. Look at that shift last game in the first period. He was propelling our team, to drive us to the win,” said Kunitz.
Considering how Crosby skated like he was shot out of a cannon in Game 5, “propelling” is the right word. He drew the penalty that led to the Penguins’ opening power-play goal, a Justin Schultz tally on which Crosby had the primary assist. He had three assists in the Penguins’ 6-0 win, which put them in a position to capture their second straight Stanley Cup in Nashville on Sunday.
From the moment he stepped on the ice, and set the tempo, it felt like his will to win wasn’t going to be denied by the Predators, and that his will was going to be mimicked by his Penguins teammates.
“You see it on the ice, but just in talking with him and being around him you can see a different level of drive and commitment. In my short time with Sid, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more committed, more determined,” said forward Matt Cullen. “When you have a guy that can elevate his play to that level, when he’s that determined, it’s fun. It’s fun to see, it’s fun to be a part of, it’s easy to follow. He’s our leader on and off the ice.”
There’s the intrinsic Crosby, and there’s the statistical Crosby. The Penguins star has seven points in six games in this series, with the Penguins’ win in Game 2 his only contest without a point. The Penguins only scored two goals in Games 3 and 4 in Nashville, but Crosby was in on both of them: He went without a shot in Game 3, but still managed an assist; and he scored their only goal in Game 4.
He returns to Nashville to face a Predators team that’s not been more vulnerable defensively. The Predators have given up more high danger chances in Games 4 and 5 than in Games 1-3 combined. They’re expected to be without key defenseman Ryan Ellis in Game 6, after he injured his back in Game 5. Along with Roman Josi, he had been charged with defending Crosby this series.
So how do the Predators stop Crosby, who has seemingly gotten better as the series has progressed?
“Just play him hard,” said Josi. “He’s obviously the best player in the world. If you give him too much space, he will make you pay.”
The “get physical with Sid” mantra was echoed by Josi’s teammates
“Be physical on him. Making him play defense, I think, definitely takes away from his offense,” said Predators forward James Neal, a former teammate of Crosby’s in Pittsburgh. “But just be more aware of him. There were a couple of plays where we let him get behind us and possess the puck a little more than we should have. He’s a great player. He’s going to make great plays if he has that extra section and has time. He did that. So just be more aware of him.”
One player that’s always aware of Crosby is goalie Pekka Rinne, who hopes his defense finds a way to slow down the Penguins star.
“It’s going to come down to a team effort. Any line that’s playing against him, they have to do a good job of containing him. He’s skating really well right now. Making really good plays. Being a top player. You have to play physically against him, good gaps, good stick,” said Rinne, before pausing.
“Obviously for me it’s easier said then done. I’m not the [defenseman] trying to stop him all the time when he’s coming down full speed.”
Stopping Sidney Crosby. Indeed, easier said than done.
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