PITTSBURGH—Only 91 seconds had elapsed in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final and already Sidney Crosby had accomplished so much.
The Penguins' captain slashed through the Nashville defence on his first shift, drew a penalty, and then set up Justin Schultz for the first goal in a 6-0 thumping last night.
Crosby finished the game with three assists, pushing Pittsburgh to within one win of back-to-back Stanley Cups.
“There's a lot of competitive guys, but I don't think there are a lot of guys who can raise their level to where he gets to,” 40-year-old Matt Cullen said of Crosby after the Penguins' win, which gave them a 3-2 series lead.
“When he senses the opportunity, it's unlike anything I've seen, the way he steps up and raises his level.”
Crosby, who won his second Rocket Richard Trophy with 44 goals during the regular season, looks more and more like the favourite to capture the Conn Smythe Trophy for a second-straight spring along with—potentially—a third Stanley Cup and second in as many years.
His level in the final has just kept on rising.
He notched two assists in a series-opening win, set up the lone goal in Game 3, and scored the only goal himself in Game 4.
Then came his finest work so far in Game 5—brilliance which was apparent on that opening shift.
Crosby grabbed a pass with speed and then slashed through the gap between Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi before firing a shot off the left post.
The 29-year-old said afterward that he was trying to quickly assess what Ellis and Josi might do—close the gap or hang back—and then simply take it all the way to the net.
Ellis was called for holding on the play and with the ensuing power play, Crosby set up Schultz for a blast that snuck through the pads of Pekka Rinne, who got the hook after only 20 minutes.
“He certainly had it going,” Ron Hainsey, one of six Penguin goal-scorers, said of Crosby.
“There's not too many guys who can do that coming right out of the chute, and I think everybody fed off that a bit as far as, 'All right, we're going to be aggressive and try to go get it.'”
The Penguins scored twice more after that in the first frame—Evgeni Malkin notably breaking through after two point-less games—and then Crosby kept it going moments into the second with another crafty set-up.
Snatching a loose puck in the Predators' zone, Crosby kicked the puck from right skate to stick and as he crossed the goal-line, somehow delivered a backhand pass to Conor Sheary in front.
He added his third assist on the first goal of the series from Phil Kessel, who also had three points in the win.
An eventful night, which saw Matt Murray earn his third career playoff shutout, also included a water bottle mistakenly pitched on the ice by Crosby and some wrestling behind the goal with P.K. Subban.
“He was doing some UFC move on my foot,” Crosby said.
Determination was evident any time Crosby touched the puck. And his teammates have noticed the Cole Harbour, N.S. native is even more driven than usual this year.
Perhaps that's because Crosby realizes how difficult it is to even reach the final in consecutive seasons—not done previously since the Penguins and Red Wings in 2008 and 2009—let alone win it twice in a row.
It took seven years for the Penguins to reach the final again after Crosby's first victory in 2009, and he's noted a desire to not let opportunity slip away when it presents itself.
Perhaps it's history he's chasing.
There's the third Stanley Cup—one more than mentor and team owner Mario Lemieux—and the chance to lead the first repeat Cup champs in the salary cap era and first in almost 20 years.
Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, and Wayne Gretzky are the only players to captain back-to-back Cup winners in the last three decades—an esteemed group Crosby would join with one more win in Nashville on Sunday night.