LCS Hockey: Born Again
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May 30, 2020
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Kid Crosby is back.

The Pittsburgh Penguins captain was a bit late to the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. After playing like just another guy through his team's first seven contests, Crosby dominated Game Two of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Rangers, displaying the speed, power, and determination that has defined his NHL career. Crosby's return became official in Game Three when he streaked down the left wing and wired a wrist shot between Henrik Lundqvist's pads, ending a 13-game playoff goal drought.

Hey, dry spells happen. Scoring playoff goals is hard. Teammate Evgeni Malkin had his own concurrent nine-game slide. Even Wayne Gretzky once went 12 playoff games without a goal. But there was something strange about Crosby's struggles. Last season, he went pointless in the four-game humbling at the paws of the Boston Bruins, but it wasn't for a lack of effort. Crosby was still Crosby. The puck just didn't go in. But this? This was something else.

Crosby's always been a third-line grinder in a superstar's body. He goes hard every second of every shift, whether it's a mid-February game against Winnipeg or a Stanley Cup Finals clash with Detroit. Nothing ever changes. He's like a metronome of excellence.

So what happened? Why was he floating around the ice against Columbus? Why was he forcing pucks into traffic? How in the blue hell did he manage a minus-3 in Game One against the Rangers?

Three possibilities.

1. Physical - Crosby certainly looked injured. His trademark explosiveness was all but nonexistent, and he lost more battles than General Custer. His minutes were down. His production was down. And even though Crosby insisted he was healthy, lying about injuries is a proud postseason tradition. Word on the street pegged a broken foot as the true culprit. And his play was indeed reminiscent of his first career playoff series against Ottawa when he labored through that exact injury. But could a broken foot suddenly heal between Games One and Two of the Rangers series? One would think any significant healing would have occurred during the layoff between the first and second round.

2. Emotional - Fans tend to forget players, even all-timers like Crosby, are real people with personal lives and problems just like any other poor sap. In 2000, Joe Sakic, one of the greatest clutch performers in NHL history and the owner of a record eight playoff overtime tallies, suffered through the worst stretch of his storied career, managing a paltry two goals and nine points in 17 postseason games. Only later did word get out Sakic's wife had gone through a serious health scare during the playoffs. Life has a knack for getting in the way.

3. Mental - Crosby has dealt with more pressure and greater expectations from a younger age than anyone not named Wayne Gretzky. He's handled it all like a champ. But four straight playoff collapses, his years of concussion woes, and last season's frightening shattered jaw could have finally pushed Crosby beyond his limits. Oddly enough, Gretzky also reached a mental tipping point when he was 26.

In 1987, the same year Crosby was born, the two-time champion Edmonton Oilers were trying to rebound from a devastating loss to the Calgary Flames the previous postseason. Gretzky felt the pressure. Despite Edmonton claiming its third Cup, Gretzky struggled to score goals, lighting the lamp just five times in 21 games. After Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals, Gretzky spoke about the mental strain of being the best player in the world:

"I've had a lot of pressure for a lot of years," Gretzky said. "Even when you're winning, the fingers get pointed at you. But when I watched the Celtics win, how Larry Bird had the attitude, 'Give me the ball,' it put me in a positive frame of mind.

"After that, I felt real confident that I was going to come out and have a good game. . . . I think watching him helped me put my own situation into a better perspective."

Following Pittsburgh's 3-0 victory in Game Three, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Dejan Kovacevic asked Crosby to explain the dramatic change between Games One and Two. Crosby admitted he may have been "trying a little too hard" and "thinking too much" instead of just playing and reacting.

Physical injury? Mental stress? An identical cousin named Lyle who suited up for seven games in an elaborate prank? We may never know.

But Kid Crosby is back.

Celebrate accordingly.

LCS Hockey: Born Again
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