PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby made certain the last regular-season game in the NHL’s oldest arena would be remembered for more than a pre-game celebration and a whole lot of nostalgic flashbacks.
Crosby took the NHL lead with his 49th goal – losing his 50th after the game – and became the third-youngest player in NHL history to reach the 500-point mark, leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 7-3 rout of the New York Islanders on Thursday in the final regular-season game in Mellon Arena.
Leave it to Crosby to create a few more highlights before the building affectionately known as the Igloo shuts down.
This wasn’t the final Penguins game there – the playoffs await the Stanley Cup champions – but it was one of the last in a building constructed six years before Pittsburgh was awarded an NHL expansion franchise.
The Penguins were visibly motivated by all the trappings of the evening, as Brooks Orpik scored only 23 seconds into the game, following a 20-minute pre-game ceremony in which 50 former players, coaches and executives took to the ice under spotlights.
“Shaking hands with all those guys, it’s a bit surreal to be on that bench and see the last home game, the last regular season game in the building,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “Those guys and those memories, it was a special night.”
Especially for Crosby.
“He kind of lives up to the moment, it seems like all the time,” Orpik said. “It was just one of those nights where it seemed like he had that extra jump and he was going.”
Crosby finished with four points, also assisting on a goal by Alex Goligoski and two by Bill Guerin, giving him 104 points for the season and 501 in his five-season career. The only players younger than Crosby (22 years, 244 days) to hit the 500-point mark faster were Wayne Gretzky (21 years, 52 days) and former Penguins star Mario Lemieux (22 years, 172 days).
“It’s one of those numbers,” Crosby said. “It’s a nice accomplishment. You don’t think about those things a lot.”
As for the goal-scoring race, Alex Ovechkin of Washington and Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay have 48 goals each.
Crosby put the Penguins up 4-2 with a wrist shot from the right circle with 58 seconds left in a first period that led the Islanders to replace goalie Martin Biron with Dwayne Roloson. Biron gave up four goals on 10 shots.
“Four goals in the first period is a pretty hard road to come back on,” Islanders coach Scott Gordon said.
The Penguins, coming off three consecutive sub-par performances in which they lost to Tampa Bay and Washington and beat Atlanta in overtime, added two more goals in the second by Tyler Kennedy and Guerin.
Crosby appeared to reach the 50-goal mark on a slap shot from the right point during a Penguins power play at 14:34 of the second. The Penguins delayed announcing the goal until play was stopped so Crosby could receive a louder ovation – and, in the interim, Kennedy scored 1:07 later to make it 6-3.
However, the goal was credited instead to Guerin following a post-game review, meaning Crosby must try for his 50th this weekend. Crosby did get his 500th career point on the play, an assist.
“I thought right away when I shot it, I thought it hit Billy’s (Guerin) leg or hand. Obviously, I asked him right after and he said it did go off his pants,” Crosby said. “It would have been great to be able to get it here, but at the end of the day goals go to guys that deserve them and he deserved that one.”
Crosby and his teammates couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment, meeting many of the former players during the morning skate. On the bench, the current players enjoyed watching videos of past highlights – and old team commercials – on the arena scoreboard during breaks in play.
“A lot of them (former players) were so excited to be here, it’s kind of an excited family,” Crosby said. “We’ve all played for this team and to share this night together and get a big win like we did, that’s special, that’s the way you want to remember it.”
Oh, and there’s a playoff race, too.
The Penguins have 99 points with two games remaining, the same as second-place New Jersey in the Eastern Conference, although the Devils own the tiebreaker. The Devils lost 3-2 to Florida. Pittsburgh plays Saturday at Atlanta and Sunday at the Islanders, while the Devils are at home Saturday against the Islanders and Sunday against the third-place Sabres.
Evgeni Malkin, returning after missing six of the previous seven games with a bruised right foot and an undisclosed illness, scored unassisted on a breakaway after intercepting a pass, putting Pittsburgh up 3-1 late in the first.
The Islanders, improved this season but still not playoff-ready, had won three in a row and five of six, but were fighting too much history and a revved-up Penguins team that is trying to build some momentum before the playoffs begin. Unlike last season, when they were 18-3-4 from mid-February on, the Penguins had lost five of eight and 12 of 22.
During the 20-minute pre-game ceremony, Lemieux got the loudest ovation – of course – of all the former players, putting on his No. 66 jersey for one of the few times since his 2006 retirement. Among the other former players taking part were original Penguins Andy Bathgate and Les Binkley, former 50-goal scorer Pierre Larouche and Hall of Famers Bryan Trottier and Paul Coffey.
The team’s first coach, Red Sullivan, and general manager, Jack Riley, also attended – Riley, at age 90, rarely misses a game.
NOTES: Pittsburgh scored the opening goal for the first time in nine games. … Pittsburgh is 10-1-1 in its last 12 against the Islanders. … Biron is 4-9-2 against Pittsburgh. … Penguins G Marc-Andre Fleury has won his last six starts at home against the Islanders. He made three stops in three seconds during a short-handed flurry in front of the net during the second period. … Malkin has six goals against the Islanders this season.