Super Stars Shine Bright in Pittsburgh

Once in a generation we are gifted with players who define the beauty and strengths of our game. Their supreme dedication to sport pays off in a collaborated showing of true heart and skill. Last night in Pittsburgh, we witnessed arguably the three best players in the NHL take the ice and show us why this game is truly amazing.

We start off with the first player on the box score for the Lightning, and not coincidentally, the NHL’s leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos. Stamkos again was just flat out brilliant around the net. His evolution as a goal scorer and game changer continues to amaze me.

In the second period, the Lightning stifled the Penguins neutral zone transition, forcing bad passes and obviously forceful turnovers. This led to a goal by Stamkos, but not a half wall slap shot. While the puck made its way back to the point, Stamkos crashed the net, forcing back a defender. The lane opened up and a great pass from Hedman gave Stamkos a wide open tip in. Not a goal Stamkos made waves with seasons ago.

When the game had all but ended, Stamkos again would find the back of the net. With a puck shot directly on net, Marc-Andre Fleury deflected said shot directly into the air. With the puck seemingly floating next to his mask, Stamkos batted the puck right out of the air in a showing of elite hand eye coordination.  It was again a showing of how far Stamkos has come.

What makes all of this truly amazing is that Stamkos now has 5 points in two games against the Penguins this season. While this might not seem truly great for a guy that is second in points in the NHL, it is more points in two games than Stamkos had against Pittsburgh in his last 6 games combined. It only shows that a once figured out sharp shooter is evolving into a truly elite goal scorer. Add in Stamkos’ ever strengthening skating ability and his excellent off season training regimen, and you have a star that shows no signs of slowing down.

While Stamkos continued to show how consistent he is, Evgeni Malkin showed how physically dominant he can be. When on his game Malkin is arguably the league’s most dominant force. He has a rare gift of tremendous size and agility that was seen in full force on his first goal since returning from a concussion.

Malkin would use his body to block a pass in the neutral zone. He took off down the right boards, forcing both defenders to crash down towards him and the goaltender as well. Once the slightest opening shined, Malkin flipped the puck through the defenders; side stepped through the opening, and shot a puck into a vacated net. Malkin would unselfishly assist in James Neal’s empty goal in the late third period, despite having a shot at the net himself. 

Malkin’s return had sparked the Pens to victory, but it was the league’s most dominant player that once again took over a night as star studded as this one. Just four minutes into the game, Sidney Crosby took the puck into the left offensive corner, spun around, pushed away Stamkos, and found Chris Kunitz in the soft spot for his 12th goal of the season. It was mastery of the puck in every since of the word. It is almost impossible to find a player as possessive of the puck as Crosby is night in and night out.

Even when it seems the opposition is primed to score, Crosby can change the game. As Stamkos enters the zone late in the third, Crosby capitalizes. While Stamkos is looking for the play in front of him to develop, Crosby attacks. Stealing the puck and heading up ice, Crosby clears the lane through the neutral zone. Pushing attackers back into defensive positions and opening up the ice around him. A drop pass to Kris Letang proves to be critical as the wall opens up. Letang would circle behind the net, only to find Crosby waiting on the right hash mark for a one timer to give the Pens the 3-2 lead.

It was just another example of how the best in the game continually change and forcefully dictate the play of others around them, be it teammates or the opposition. It is what makes these three players currently the best in the game, with all due respect to Toews, Taveres, Giroux, and Datsyuk. The next time these teams meet will not be till April 11th in Tampa.

Notes: The game featured the leading NHL goal scorer (Stamkos 17) points and assists producer (Crosby 36,25) plus/minus leader (Kunitz +17) and goaltender wins (Fleury 11, also tied with 4 others).