Sidney Crosby’s march to 800 career assists slowed to a crawl in recent weeks. So did his team’s momentum after a stirring – if brief – sprint to the top of the Metropolitan Division.
So forgive the Penguins captain if he was more relieved than elated after reaching the plateau during a 7-3 win over Ottawa on Tuesday night that snapped the franchise’s longest losing streak in eight years.
“It’s a nice number,” Crosby said in typically understated fashion. “I mean, it took long enough here.”
Well, not really. It just felt that way.
Crosby reached the mark in his 980th game, the sixth-fastest player in history to get there. Yet he’d gone without an assist since a victory over Toronto on Feb. 18, an extended funk that coincided with a six-game slide that dropped the Penguins off the pace in the NHL’s most competitive division. Crosby shouldered the blame following a 5-0 blowout in San Jose on Saturday night that capped a nightmarish California swing, saying he needed to do more.
And so Crosby did more, picking up his 14th goal of the season in the second period and setting up Bryan Rust in the first period and Jason Zucker in the third period to become the 32nd player in league history to reach 800 assists.
“Any time a captain and a player of Sid’s calibre takes ownership like that, I think it inspires the rest of the group to want to play for him,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said.
Crosby received plenty of help. Rust collected his third career hat trick when he beat Craig Anderson twice in the third period. Zucker now has six goals since arriving in a trade from Minnesota last month, and John Marino celebrated his return following an 11-game absence by scoring 48 seconds into the first period to give the Penguins a needed early jolt. Conor Sheary scored off a fortunate bounce less than a minute after Marino’s goal to give Pittsburgh a lead it would never relinquish.
“I think what’s most important is that we stuck to our game early on and we came out with a lot of energy and able to score the first couple goals,” Marino said. “That’s huge for us. Going forward if we’re able to do that, then most of the time we’ll come out on top and keep that lead.”
Jayce Hawryluk, Brady Tkachuk and Connor Brown scored for the Senators but Ottawa couldn’t keep pace with the Penguins, who began a crucial stretch by regaining some of the momentum they lost during their longest losing streak since 2012.
“We did it to ourselves, I think,” Tkachuk said. “In the third there, we let (Anderson) out to dry, and that can’t ever happen. He’s been great for us all year. All our goalies have. It’s unfortunate the way we ended. That’s going to be something we learn from.”
Sullivan preached patience following some occasionally listless performances in which his team was outplayed by a series of clubs who will be sitting home when the playoffs begin next month. Sullivan instructed his players to keep it simple, to put the puck on the net and good things would likely happen.
It didn’t take long. Both of the early goals began with innocent flicks by Marino and Sheary. Marino’s shot from the point fluttered through traffic to beat Anderson for his sixth of the season. Sheary was all alone in the corner when he tried a centring pass to Crosby that instead hit the skate of Ottawa’s Mike Reilly and caromed into the net.
It was the kind of bounce the Penguins didn’t get often during a losing streak in which they were outscored 24-8. Hawryluk cut the Ottawa deficit to 2-1 when he tapped in a loose puck with 3:36 to go in the first but Rust responded with a power-play goal with 46 seconds to go in the period to help Pittsburgh pushing forward.
Crosby made it 4-1 in the late stages of the second period and his helper on Zucker’s goal 36 seconds into the third jgave Crosby another slice of history and helped push Pittsburgh to within a point of second-place Philadelphia in the Metropolitan.
“It’s a competitive league,” Crosby said. “Some nights you’re going to play well and not necessarily win but you’ve got to give yourself a chance every night and you know, I think that’s more or less the message. We knew coming home we needed a big win.”
NOTES: Crosby is the second Penguin to reach 800 assists with the club, joining Hall of Famer and team owner Mario Lemieux. Wayne Gretzky needed just 527 games to get to 800 assists. … Penguins D Brian Dumoulin recorded an assist and played 19:52 in his return after missing 37 games with a lower-body injury. … Ottawa C Artem Anisimov left early in the first period and did not return after colliding with Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin. … Anderson made 28 saves for the Senators, who have now lost nine straight in Pittsburgh.
Senators: Host the New York Islanders on Thursday. New York has won both of the previous meetings between the clubs this season.
Pittsburgh: Travels to Buffalo on Thursday. The Sabres ripped the Penguins 5-2 on Feb. 22.