Let's mince no words here in saying that Sidney Crosby, the greatest active hockey player in the universe, is the reason that the Pittsburgh Penguins are not currently playing their home games in Kansas City. He is beloved in his adopted hometown, but when you're as good as he is, love only gets you so far. Ahead of tonight's critical Game 6 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Crosby has not scored a goal in 10 straight playoff games. In five this year, he's 0-fer. In the Pens' four-game bounce-out in the Eastern Conference final last year, and their final game against Ottawa, he was likewise 0-fer.
People are nervous. And they're starting to tilt toward upset. When things go wrong in Pittsburgh, there's usually a lot of blame to go around. Marc-Andre Fleury suffering another meltdown, or Dan Bylsma's defensive systems just not working, but last year, for perhaps the first time ever, the focus turned to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who likewise didn't record a point in that Boston series. What was wrong with them was really simple: They ran into a defensive juggernaut and played on a team so bereft of peripheral talent that all of Zdeno Chara's and Patrice Bergeron's attentions could be focused solely on them. People seemed to grudgingly accept that.
Against Columbus, those same people believe they have no such excuses. The general consensus at this point seems to be, "Yes, but why aren't they scoring goals? Superstars score goals, don't they?" And it doesn't matter that Crosby has five assists in five games, or that Malkin has four. It doesn't matter that they're driving play at ludicrous rates, with corsi shares around 60 percent apiece (60.1 for Crosby, 57.6 for Malkin). And it doesn't matter that Fleury and the patchwork Penguins defense and non-existent bottom-six is hemorrhaging again. And it sure as hell doesn't matter that they've been on the ice for six goals for and only four against at even strength despite big minutes and tougher assignments than other forwards. They should, apparently, be doing a whole lot more.
So it was that on Saturday, at home, in a game the Penguins ended up winning 3-1, and outshooting the underdog Blue Jackets 51-24, that Crosby was booed. Not by a lot of people, obviously. But he was booed. Sidney Crosby. And what was he booed for? Missing an empty net? Not getting back on a scoring chance that wound up in the back of the net? Nope, it was an errant pass. Really. Sidney Crosby was booed in Pittsburgh by people he almost certainly made diehard Penguins fans again —who couldn't pick Alexei Morozov out of a CSKA Moscow lineup, and who probably bought Tyler Kennedy jerseys a few years back because he scored something like two meaningful playoff goals in what ended up being another first-round flameout —because he messed up one pass at a non-critical juncture of a game that was, if not on the scoreboard then at least in the run of play, well in hand.
Meanwhile, people were actively making the same old excuses for Fleury, a perennial playoff liability (postseason career save percentage of .903), and chanting his name after the most routine of saves on Saturday, when to his credit he stopped 23 of 24. Perhaps it's because so little is expected of him — "Hey, he didn't blow it!" — or perhaps it's because he's not the face of the franchise despite being a former No. 1 overall pick himself. But he's free to allow as many softies as he pleases.
People, for obvious reasons, demand something of Crosby. His career average points-per-game, if extrapolated out to an 82-game season, is about 115. Lets go back and say that again: Over any given 82-game stretch in his career, Crosby would, on average, have one hundred fifteen points. He is currently fourth all-time in the NHL in PPG, behind Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Mike Bossy. All of whom played in time periods when scoring was significantly more common than it is today.
The fact that's he's expected to top a point a game weights his responsibility to Pittsburgh and its hockey fans; Any period of 10 games without a goal simply cannot be accepted, no matter how much else he's doing. You don't see a 60 percent corsi on the highlight shows. You see Lee Stempniak having more goals than the best player in the world.
Penguins fans have short memories at times like these. This is not, however, a Pittsburgh-only problem.
People in Washington and in the hockey media at large spent most of the season complaining that Alex Ovechkin — you know, back-to-back Rocket Richard Trophy winner and three-time MVP Alex Ovechkin — might have scored 51 goals this season, but he did so while also posting a plus-minus rating of minus-35, good for 884th out of 886 players in the NHL this season. People said he needed to change his game to incorporate more defense, and people say he's the reason his coach got fired and his general manager will not have his contract renewed. They say this at the same time they say that plus-minus is "not the best stat" (because it is in fact an awful one) and you so often hear that statement couched with a "but." Whoever is brought in next, they say, needs to hold players like Ovechkin more accountable, as though this wasn't somehow something the team tried in the past. Those were the seasons in which Ovechkin scored 32 and 38 goals, when Bruce Boudreau tried to get him to play more of a three-zone game, and then when Dale Hunter tried to get him to block shots. And everyone wondered what had happened to the 50-goal-scoring Alex Ovechkin of old.
They want to have it both ways. They want the Ovechkin who pumps power play goals past helpless netminders and laughs his way through six-shot games like they're no big deal, but they also want him backchecking as hard as possible every single time. This despite the fact that no two-way player has ever been able to score like Ovechkin does. That the Capitals were pretty bad all season long, with their playoff hopes preserved only by a tops-in-the-league power play (23.4 percent for 68 goals) powered by Ovechkin, had nothing to do with how hard their star player skates to lift guys' sticks on 3-on-2s.
Phil Kessel, too, has been targeted with this kind of criticism. He had 80 points this year, including 37 goals, for a miserable Toronto team that was famously held in the playoff race by little more than luck and outstanding goaltending for nearly the entirety of the season. While a lot of people were happy to point out that the Maple Leafs were a team without a defensive system worth a damn, and that's why they conceded more than 35 shots per game, perhaps just as many said that a lot of that had to do with Kessel's lack of accountability. No one's ever tried to put a saddle on Kessel in the way they have Ovechkin, but one can expect similar results if it ever happens: a drop in goalscoring, lots of questions why.
Ovechkin and Kessel, in particular, are often referred to as being "one-dimensional players," which is to some extent true. But when that dimension is scoring more goals than anyone else on the team (or in Ovechkin's case, the league) one must necessarily allow for a little more wiggle room in the backchecking department. You pay these guys to score goals, and when you also ask them to play defense, and they therefore stop scoring as many goals, that's just a new thing for which they can be criticized.
But it must be said that in the playoffs — something Kessel and Ovechkin won't have to worry about for a while — goalscoring can paper over a lot of ugliness, and a lack thereof will obviously turn people against you. The Blackhawks' Bryan Bickell, for example, signed a four-year deal with $16 million last summer because he scored a ton of big goals in the playoffs last season, including the goal that sparked the team's shocking Game 6 comeback to win the Stanley Cup. Four million dollars a season in a league in which the salary cap is $64.3 million is a pretty decent amount of money, especially for a guy who, for his career, averages a little more than 31 points in an 82-game season. But he happened to score as many goals in 23 playoff games last year (nine) as he did in 71 the year before. The league is littered with guys like this; Ville Leino, Joel Ward, etc.
And if those players don't perform in the playoffs, as they so often do not, no one really bats an eye. They weren't, after all, supposed to perform. So who cares if they're basically a giant hole in the roster? They're not being paid to score, but rather to skate around and try not to embarrass themselves while Crosby and Malkin sip some Gatorade and catch their breath.
Meanwhile, Tyler Seguin found out the hard way what scoring just one goal in 22 playoff games gets you: Chased out of town with a lot of rumors (which are probably true) about what a party boy you are. It mattered not that he took 70 shots in those 22 games, despite playing third-line minutes, and drove possession despite playing with Chris Kelly as his center. He had to go. It also didn't matter that he posted 84 points in 80 games this season. We were assured he'd never be able to do that in Boston. Not with that knife in his back anyway.
That's the point, though. The only thing that matters in hockey, perhaps more than any other sport, is the most basic of counting stats: goals and points. It would be like evaluating a baseball player's quality on the basis of his hit and RBI totals only, and at this point everyone who watches the game with a critical eye understands that there's so much more. Nonetheless, the perception is that if Crosby had scored a goal or two, the Penguins might have already eliminated the Blue Jackets. No one has really said this, though, about the rest of the garbage in the Penguins lineup. All blame must be heaved on the shoulders of Crosby, despite the fact that, were this any other sport, the utter lack of supporting cast would be topic Nos. 1-1,282,485 on every talk radio gabfest from Pittsburgh to Vancouver. This wouldn't happen if you surrounded Mike Trout with AAAA talent. No one would blame him for not winning the World Series.
But in hockey, great players have to make plays with the game or the series or the season on the line. No questions asked. Meanwhile, lesser players have excuses made for them.