Penguins’ Crosby back on top of his game

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby skates during hockey practice at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Sunday May 29, 2016. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Sidney Crosby does not have an off switch. If there was one, Patric Hornqvist believes he would have found it by now.

Not once over the last two years while playing alongside one of the NHL’s most popular players has Hornqvist seen an exasperated sigh, a roll of the eyes or so much as a smirk from the superstar who has dutifully served as one of the faces from the league from the moment the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted him No. 1 overall in 2005 and he became tasked with restoring the languishing franchise to glory.

“It’s crazy how well-prepared he is for everything,” Hornqvist said.

Of course it’s easy to say now, with the Penguins holding a 1-0 lead over San Jose heading into tonight’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Their captain and two-time MVP seems restored to his place among the game’s elite after ending a seven-year drought between appearances in the NHL’s marquee event.

It’s a gap few saw coming when the 21-year-old Crosby held the Cup aloft in joy in Detroit back in 2009 after beating the Red Wings in seven taut games.

“Everybody thought (we’d) win 5-6-7 in the next 10 years,” said recently retired Pittsburgh forward Pascal Dupuis.

Everybody thought wrong. The burgeoning dynasty fizzled, with Crosby bearing the brunt of perpetual disappointment, accepting the blame for everything from his health to spotty goaltending to a top-heavy roster that lacked the depth necessary to make a deep postseason run.

“Look, this is his third final in his short career to this point, and that’s pretty good,” said former Pittsburgh coach Ed Olczyk, who coached Crosby as a rookie in 2005-06. “Now, in saying that, there haven’t been many teams that have underachieved more than the Pittsburgh Penguins over the course of the last five or six years.”

A label Crosby took personally even as circumstances – some beyond his control, some not – made him struggle to shed it. There was the protracted recovery from concussion-like symptoms that robbed him of two seasons in his prime. A series of meek playoff flameouts in which opponents found a way to stifle his brilliance.

“You just have to be able to put it all together at the right time,” Crosby said. “I don’t think we necessarily lacked those things in years we didn’t win. I think you just have to be able to put it together and come up with those big plays at timely times.”

And in some ways, Crosby had to grow up, too. For all his talent – he’s never finished outside the top 10 in points per game in any season in which he’s played enough games to qualify – he can occasionally be too unselfish with the puck on his stick, sometimes trading wide-open shots for difficult passes in search of a teammate who may or may not be ready for them.

It’s a line he’s learned to straddle more carefully under Mike Sullivan, who freed Crosby from the constraints placed on him by former coach Mike Johnston. Sullivan encouraged Crosby to embrace his creativity so long as he finds a way to do it responsibly. It’s not a coincidence that Crosby put up 31 goals and 36 assists in 52 games with Sullivan on the bench. He’s added six goals – three of them game-winners – and 10 assists through 19 playoff games.

“He’s a threat,” Sullivan said. “Every time he jumps over the boards, we feel like he’s a threat to score, just a threat as far as putting pressure on our opponent’s defense. He has that twinkle in his eye, I think.”