Why it’s now or never for Sidney Crosby and the suddenly hot Penguins

The Penguins are suddenly red hot. Does that mean it’s time to pursue major upgrades and push for a Cup while Crosby remains in his prime?

See Sidney Crosby’s natural hat trick against the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night? The telling thing about it was how little time the puck spent on his stick. It might’ve been a second and a half across all three goals combined. That’s the sign of a confident, aggressive player showing very little hesitation.

We wouldn’t have described Sid the Kid’s game that way over the first few months of 2015-16, which went so poorly by his lofty standards that he didn’t get an All-Star Game sniff, not even when Alex Ovechkin’s suspension opened up a Metropolitan Division berth. Evgeny Kuznetsov simply deserved the nod more. When have we ever been able to say that about a healthy Crosby? Never. The rocky start doomed him this season. He had one goal and five points over 11 October games and, by the end of November, five goals and 15 points through 23 games.

But the ugly first act is history as quickly as it arrived. Crosby stabilized with a reasonable December effort of four goals and 12 points in 13 games, then proceeded to douse himself in kerosene and become a human torch. Crosby since Jan. 1: 12 games, 11 goals, 18 points and a hilarious shooting percentage of 25.6. That’s what you call regressing to the ol’ mean. Crosby, a 14.4 percent career shooter, sat at 8.5 on Dec. 31. He’s now all the way back to 13.4. Per, Crosby’s score adjusted Corsi was 48.9 in the first three months and is a superb 62.4 during his white-hot 2016 calendar year.

You get the point of the stats bombardment. Crosby is B-A-C-K. And a lot of other nice, happy things coincide with that trend in Pittsburgh. Many of his teammates, most notably defenseman Kris Letang, are also ablaze. It also helps that Letang and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury are healthy again. And, most of all, we’ve seen a very different Pittsburgh team since coach Mike Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston. The Pens are 10-7-4 under Sullivan and 8-1-3 since that magical Jan. 1 rebirth. Before Jan. 1, the Pens’ score adjusted Corsi For per 60 minutes was 54.1, and their Corsi Against per 60 was 53.6, for a total mark of 50.2. Since Jan. 1: 58.4 For, 48.5 Against, 54.6 total. The Pens have morphed back into dominant possession team with a clear and consistent edge in pucks directed at opponents’ nets versus their own.

They’ve also climbed back into an Eastern Conference wild-card position and have games in hand on the team directly above and below them. Heck, they’re only two points out of second place in the Metropolitan Division. It’s a fascinating turnaround because it just might flip the script on what was shaping up to be a disastrous season for the franchise. There was no way around the fact GM Jim Rutherford was having a tough year. He traded Simon Despres to get Ben Lovejoy last year at the trade deadline. Rutherford let Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff walk in free agency and didn’t make significant moves to replace their minutes on the blueline until a December trade for Trevor Daley. Even the Phil Kessel acquistion hasn’t looked great for the Pens so far, as they appear to have received something closer to last year’s Kessel than to the dynamic player of seasons prior in Toronto.

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A playoff miss for a team with the $38-million core of Crosby, Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury approaching the later years of their primes would be unacceptable, perhaps enough to threaten Rutherford’s job security and at least enough to warrant a major off-season shakeup. What choice would Rutherford have, assuming he kept his job? He’d have to explore every option imaginable, from moving Fleury to clear space for outstanding young netminder Matt Murray to, gulp, kicking the tires on a massive blockbuster involving Crosby or Malkin.

It would seem ludicrous to even entertain such a trade…or would it? The trend in Pens finishes if they miss the big dance this year would be: third round defeat, second round defeat, first round defeat, out of playoffs. A steadily sinking ship taking on water would need a major bailout, meaning no trade would be off the table. The Pens’ one and only championship of the Crosby/Malkin era will celebrate its seventh anniversary this spring. They can only hang their helmets on that for so long.

Suddenly, though, the Pens look like a team the East must respect. Sullivan has them playing to their run-and-gun strengths. It may not be time for their eulogy after all. And that’s why the next few months will be a defining stretch of Crosby’s career, of Malkin’s career, of the entire Pens organization. Can Sid and Co. elevate the franchise back into Stanley Cup contention? And, if the Pens keep winning over the next month, should Rutherford start to explore serious and risky trade deadline upgrades? How about Dustin Byfuglien as a rental, should Pittsburgh find a way to make the money work? A month ago, these weren’t realistic questions for Rutherford to consider, but now they matter, especially with no team save for the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers cementing firm footings in the East. A hot Pens squad, especially one augmented by a deadline deal or two, would be dangerous in the playoffs.

On the flip side, if the Pens’ surge proves fleeting and they slide back toward lottery territory, we’ll have to question if we’ve seen the end of an era in Steeltown. The franchise will face some excruciatingly difficult personnel decisions. And that’s why we’re smack in the middle of Pittsburgh’s most crucial stretch in years.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin