Penguins defenseman Kris Letang skates up the ice against the Islanders.
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Penguins star Sidney Crosby was named Friday as a finalist for the Hart Memorial Trophy, which goes to the NHL's most valuable player. He is the favorite despite missing a full quarter of the season because of a broken jaw. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was named Tuesday as a finalist for the Norris Memorial Trophy, which goes to the league's top defenseman. He has a chance of winning despite missing even more time than Crosby -- 13 of 48 games -- because of injuries.
Anyone who doubts Crosby's and Letang's legitimacy for the awards because they were out so long didn't watch Game 5 Thursday against the New York Islanders, a 4-0 win by the Penguins. Each made a couple of plays few NHL players can make. In the case of Crosby's second-period goal, no other player could make it.
It's sad, in a way, that we take such greatness for granted. We have been spoiled here for a long time by hockey's best, going back to the Mario Lemieux days. We expect brilliance and get it in many games. We almost yawn when we see it.
But it would be flat wrong not to step back and appreciate what Crosby and Letang did against the Islanders.
Letang made the pass of the game midway through the second period, a perfect stretch pass from deep in the Penguins zone to teammate Tyler Kennedy at the Islanders blue line. Kennedy, behind defenseman Radek Martinek, cruised in alone on goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and beat him with a wrist shot for a 1-0 lead.
"We needed a little bit of a spark. T.K. got us going," Letang said.
Actually, Letang got the Penguins going.
"It was kind of a quick play," he said. "I saw [Kennedy] put his stick on the ice. It looked like he wanted it. I tried to get it to him."
Crosby's goal was even better.
"It was a pretty amazing goal. Pretty spectacular," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma gushed.
Crosby was much more nonchalant.
"It was a good job of coming out of our end. [Pascal Dupuis] made a good wall play. I was able to pick up some speed and got it from [Jarome Iginla], saw an opening and was able to score."
You have to be kidding.
Crosby stickhandled through and muscled aside Islanders defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey. It took incredible strength and skill to get through the two. Beating Nabokov with a wrist shot for a 3-0 lead was the easy part. At least, it was easy for Crosby, who has averaged two points per game in his four playoff matches since coming back from his jaw injury.
Crosby and Letang struck again in the third period for the Penguins' final goal. It's hard to say what was more impressive -- Crosby's backhanded pass through the slot or Letang's rocket of a shot, which drove Nabokov from the net to the Islanders bench. What's sick is that the play seemed almost routine compared to Kennedy's and Crosby's goals.
When hockey people say Crosby sees the ice like no one in the game, they aren't exaggerating. The Penguins do peripheral vision tests on all their players. His results always are off the charts. That's a big reason he would have been the NHL's runaway scoring champion if he hadn't taken a puck to the face March 30 in a game against the Islanders. Despite missing those final 12 games, he wasn't passed in the scoring race until the final week of the season by Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos.
Letang is an extraordinary offensive talent. Despite missing the 13 games, he tied with Montreal's P.K. Subban for most points by a defenseman. His contract runs through next season, but the Penguins need to find a way to do a new deal with him after this season. You win Stanley Cup titles with a player with his skills.
Crosby and Letang did what stars are supposed to do in Game 5. They picked up their team and carried it to an important win. It won't surprise anyone if they do it again tonight in Game 6 on Long Island and help the Penguins eliminate the Islanders.
No matter what Crosby and Letang do the rest of the playoffs, it won't help them in the Hart and Norris voting. The ballots were sent in before the postseason. Crosby's competition for the Hart is Washington's Alexander Ovechkin and the Islanders' John Tavares. Letang's competition for the Norris is Subban and Minnesota's Ryan Suter.
Ordinarily, it's hard to vote for a player who missed a quarter of the season or more. But it's not difficult at all to vote for Crosby and Letang.