PITTSBURGH – When it comes to the product on the ice, this has been a really bad Stanley Cup final, one of the worst since the Dead Puck Era™. The refereeing has been almost as bad as the goaltending, the missed calls almost as frequent as the suspect goals. The Pittsburgh Penguins went 37 minutes without a shot in Game 1, their defense at times has looked leaky. The Nashville Predators have gone through stretches of time where it looks like they’ve forgotten how to play hockey.
There are two things that could save this series, though, from going down in entertainment ignominy. The first would be for Nashville to win Game 6 this weekend, which would lead both teams back to Pittsburgh next Wednesday night where they have an epic Game 7 that results in the first Game 7 overtime in the Stanley Cup final since 1954. The other would be for Sidney Crosby to continue to be the Sidney Crosby who has a unique feel for time and place and his importance in the game. Because if he plays the way he has in the past two games the rest of this series, we’re talking about a performance for the ages.
Love him or hate him – and those two camps seem to be fairly equal in size – there is no disputing that Sidney Crosby was put on earth to play hockey. He lives for moments like these and, more often than not, he delivers. That was without a doubt the case in Game 5 when Crosby, from his first spectacular shift of the game, took his teammates on his back and willed them to a 6-0 win. He had three assists in the game and we were once again left marveling at his capabilities.
“I don’t know that I’ve been around an athlete – not just a hockey player, but an athlete – that is as driven as Sid is,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “I think Sid really understands the opportunity that this team has and he’s not taking anything for granted. He’s as driven an athlete as I’ve seen. He’s as hungry as I’ve seen a player, and I just think he understands it. He sees the opportunity in front of us, and he’s doing everything within his power to try to help us be successful.”
It seemed Crosby, who was by far the Penguins best player in their Game 4 loss, was insistent upon putting his fingerprints on every aspect of the game. Late in the first period when he and P.K. Subban got tangled up behind the Penguins net, Crosby took Subban down and drilled his head into the ice no fewer than half a dozen times, with referee Brad Meier standing feet away and watching the whole thing before giving each player a minor penalty. It was, as Predators coach Peter Laviolette could be seen saying, “a f—king disgrace.” It was also typical of the way this series has been officiated. The referees have essentially lost control of this series and dragged it into the muck. It was the worst of a great game on display and Subban, who is even more polarizing a personality than Crosby, did nothing to deserve it. Subban did not, contrary to NBC analyst Mike Milbury, “have it coming.”
“He lost his stick and, I don’t know, he was doing some kind of UFC move on my foot,” Crosby said. “I don’t know what he was trying to do, but I was trying to get out of there. I was trying to get out of there and he had lost his stick and was trying to hold me down. I don’t know what he was trying to do to my ankle, but…”
Then, with his team well ahead in the game, Crosby appeared to toss a water bottle on the ice. This one was far less nefarious, and it’s pretty easy to believe Crosby was making a gesture to the officials over a missed call when the bottle slipped out of his hand.
“I didn’t try to throw it,” Crosby said. “I know it ended up on the ice, but I wouldn’t start throwing water bottles at this point.”
It’s actually so NHL that we’re talking as much about Crosby’s indiscretions as we are his brilliance. Nobody loves a sideshow more than the NHL. Gives it more fodder to foster the hate it loves to cultivate. Again, that’s too bad, because we should all be really talking about how the best player in the world lived up to his billing.
“When he’s driving like that, it pushes everyone to be better,” Chris Kunitz said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t have to say much. Everyone knows by the way he plays, the way he works, the way he practices. That’s why he’s such a great leader, because he drives guys to be better and makes everyone to want to push as hard as he does.”
So now Crosby and his teammates are one win away from becoming the first back-to-back champions in almost two decades. But they face a huge challenge trying to win in Nashville, where they want the Country Music Awards to be the only baubles that are given out there this weekend. Of the four Stanley Cups the Penguins have won, not one of them has come on home ice. That sets them up well for Sunday night, but the way these playoffs have played out, it’s best not to expect anything conventional. Stay tuned, this year’s Stanley Cup final still has a fighting chance to be saved from itself.
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