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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, June 10, 2017 1:00 am

Stanley Cup Final

Crosby everywhere as Pens close in on title

WILL GRAVES | Associated Press

PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby's teammates keep saying nothing ever changes with the Pittsburgh Penguins captain. That the secret to his greatness is really no secret at all. The Penguins believe he remains the same player and the same person every shift, every night.

In theory, yes. But not always in practice.

What separates Crosby is an ability to raise his play in lockstep with the stakes. His team's grasp on a second straight Stanley Cup tenuous at best heading into Game 5 against Nashville on Thursday, Crosby did more than send a message. He took over.

Sure, Crosby dished out three assists in Pittsburgh's 6-0 win to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead in their series with the Predators. Yet becoming the franchise's all-time leader in points during this Stanley Cup Final (surpassing his boss, Mario Lemieux) captures only a slice of the brilliance and brawn that pushed Pittsburgh to the verge of a fifth title.

There was his quicksilver first shift, when Crosby split the Predators defense shortly after the opening faceoff, then rang a shot off the left post while drawing a penalty from Nashville's Ryan Ellis, who tried futilely to slow him down. Pittsburgh scored on the ensuing power play and never looked back.

There was his scrum behind the Nashville net late in the first period with P.K. Subban. Crosby responded to the All-Star defenseman doing some “UFC move” on his right foot by trying to make Subban's face a permanent part of the ice.

With 90 seconds left in the first period, all that lingering tension came to a boil, leading the face of the NHL to do something un-Crosbylike. The two-time MVP ended up on top of a stickless Subban and attempted to get up only to have Subban refuse to let go of Crosby's right leg. So Crosby started playing whack a mole with Subban's head, resulting in offsetting minor penalties that only seemed to send another jolt through the Pittsburgh bench.

There was the slick blind backhand pass to Conor Sheary just 1:19 into the second period that made it 4-0. Oh, and don't forget the water bottle toss just moments before Phil Kessel's first goal of the series pushed the lead to 5-0. He insists it was accidental.

“When he plays that way it's awfully easy to follow him,” Penguins forward Matt Cullen said. “He's pretty inspirational when he plays that way and he gets to a level that not many guys can get to.”