Crosby's drought ends in style

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NEW YORK -- It would have been worse if they didn't mention it.

If they treated him like a pitcher sitting on a no-hitter or avoided the topic altogether.

Sidney Crosby's teammates knew that. They were very aware he was dealing with a playoff goal drought that reached back 13 games to May 22, and not acknowledging the elephant in the dressing room would have somehow made it worse.

So they did what hockey players do. They gave him a hard time.

"We joked around with him. Like, 'When the heck are you going to get one? What's going on here?' Just give him a hard time," Matt Niskanen explained after the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2-0 win over the New York Rangers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. "He handles it pretty well. He's feeling the heat, I'm sure. He puts enough pressure on himself besides the outside stuff. We just joked around with him."?

They could joke because they knew full well it would end. You don't play like Crosby did in Game 2 of this series and not get a goal eventually.

Maybe if the chances weren't there or maybe if Crosby's game were suffering, maybe then they would have tightened up around him. That never happened.

But still, this one was special, if for no other reason than it ends the conversation about the goalless streak. It kills the narrative.

Now, the focus can shift elsewhere, such as to how Marc-Andre Fleury has suddenly reasserted himself as a goalie this team can trust to make big saves, as he did in a first period against the Rangers in which he was a big reason the Penguins killed a Marcel Goc roughing penalty and a double minor on James Neal for a high stick.

The focus can shift elsewhere, assuming this isn't the start of something much bigger for Crosby.

"It's one game. Playoffs, you have to be able to turn the page quickly, but it's nice to finally score," Crosby said after the win that gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 series lead. "I think you just try to believe that eventually they're going to go in. I thought [in Game 2] I had some really good chances, I think we all did. Sometimes when you're getting all those chances, you have to trust they're going to go in. That's the most important thing, is the chances."

Crosby can have that perspective -- and, really, he's right -- but when a star of his caliber goes as long as he did without a goal, that becomes the story. Regardless of the chances.

He can thank Robert Bortuzzo for putting an end to that conversation. After the game, Dan Bylsma conceded that, of all the Penguins puck-movers you'd think of making a stretch pass to spring Crosby, Bortuzzo isn't at the top of the list. Not when this roster includes Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Niskanen.

When you watch the highlight of Crosby's breakthrough goal, rewind a moment to appreciate the play Bortuzzo makes there. Some defensemen playing in just their fifth career playoff game might have taken that pass from Chris Kunitz in the defensive zone and rushed it out of there. Maybe bang it off the boards. Instead, Bortuzzo waits just a beat for the play to open up, allowing Crosby to gather steam past Marc Staal. He was aided by the shouts from his captain, alerting him to the situation. Shouts of "Hey! Hey! Hey!"

"I popped my head up, I saw Sid streaking, the defenseman in an awkward position. I'm trying to hit him with some speed, and it was pretty exciting when he was able to finish it," Bortuzzo said. "When he's hollering, you get it to him."

Said Bylsma about the play made by his 25-year-old defenseman: "He showed a great deal of patience, brought that back and delivered it -- a long stretch pass to Sid as he was going right in flight. You kind of double-check to see what the number was. Great play."

Making it worse for the Rangers, it came on the heels of a successful four-minute penalty kill for the Penguins. Similar to the way Jussi Jokinen's goal, when he scored coming out of the penalty box, followed another goalless Rangers power play. Absolutely deflating for New York.

One Crosby goal, one stretch pass by Bortuzzo and the entire focus of goal-scoring droughts shifts to New York. It shifts to the Rangers' ineffective power play. The inability to beat Fleury, a goalie who appears to be building confidence with each perfect game.

It shifts to the lack of consistent scoring by the Rangers' big guns, Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis. Now, they're the ones answering questions and dealing with the additional pressure that comes with failed expectations.

Crosby's teammates will tell you that he never outwardly let his lack of goal scoring frustrate him. Not from what they saw. But the celebration suggested that the frustration might have existed.

"There was a smile after he put that in that I haven't seen in a while," Niskanen said. "That's good for him."

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