Welcome to our NHL Bogeymen series, where we take a deep dive into how one particular player has haunted a specific team over the last six years. It could be a superstar. It could be an anonymous grinder. Regardless, every team has one of these opponents; the one guy guaranteed to light your team up every chance he gets. We’re here to tell you why.
Thank you, italicized narrator!
I’m sure you’re all shocked we’re going to start with the best player in the NHL. Of course Sidney Crosby would be featured at some point. Which team hasn’t he dominated at some point in his career? (Actually, save that. That’s a good idea.)
But (outside of his Metropolitan home) no division has suffered his wrath quite like the Atlantic.
|Sidney Crosby vs.||GP||G||A||P||P/G||G/G||GWG|
|Detroit Red Wings||9||4||4||8||0.89||0.44||1|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||13||9||16||25||1.92||0.69||1|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||14||8||11||19||1.36||0.57||1|
But those numbers pale in comparison to what Crosby’s done to the Buffalo Sabres since 2010-11. In those 13 games against the Sabres, the Pittsburgh Penguins captain has four goals, 26 points, and a ridiculous 2.00 points per game average.
Those numbers indicate Crosby carves up the Sabres defenders. Let’s look and the tape and see how.
First, let’s note one thing: Crosby, as a superstar, is capable of doing this to any team. But by the end of this exercise you’ll understand why the Sabres, in particular, bring Crosby’s peak level out.
Changing direction of play through the offensive zone
Might as well start with my favorite part of these clips.
Over the last five years, the Sabres have dealt with a roster of players either past their prime or relatively inexperienced. That’s the price of tanking! And they were often guilty of falling prey to Crosby’s innate ability to change the direction of play to Pittsburgh’s advantage.
Look at that lovely chaos. Let’s break it down into bits and pieces.
The first notable thing: all four of the Sabres players get caught A) watching Crosby and B) following his path blindly deep into the defensive zone. So then he curls back, turning a dead-end down low into a sea of possibilities up high.
We’ll give the Sabres some credit here. Though Crosby hits the trailing defenseman, Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford quickly converge and disrupt the play. But then they lose the puck. Crosby recovers it. And the chase is on.
Buffalo is about to be outnumbered 3-to-2 down low, so Foligno makes the only decision: stick with Crosby. But that means he leaves Pascal Dupuis all alone. Crosby sees this, but bides his time before ...
Yep. Crosby passes the puck against the forward motion of play again, turning a 3-on-2 into a 2-on-1 and a goal.
He did this again during this five-year stretch against the Sabres, this time during his five-point night in Buffalo on Nov. 8, 2014. It was his last point of the night.
It’s just another case of Crosby getting the puck deep in the zone on an odd-man rush and reversing field with the pass. That creates extra seconds for defenders to slide deeper into their own zone, giving the trailing man time and space to pick his shot. It’s just smart, creative hockey, and the Sabres let Crosby bait them into it too often.
Crosby demands their respect and attention
That five-point game provided another example of the Sabres getting lulled into mistakes by watching Crosby. And it’s my favorite of all of these plays.
You might think that was a power play, but that just speaks to Crosby’s ability to tie the Sabres into knots. We’ll start at his first pass through the slot. At first, it seems like the Sabres are too fixated on him. Well ...
Both defenders make the mistake of underestimating Crosby’s speedy decision-making. By the time they’ve registered the possible pass threats and looked back, the puck is off Crosby’s stick and past their feet.
And as they scramble to cover those threats, they (fatally) lose Crosby.
They fixated on Crosby and he capitalized. Quickly. Too quickly. But that’s what he does best.
Superior skill, vision, and quick decision-making
Like I mentioned at the start, these vulnerabilities aren’t unique to the Sabres. Crosby can do this to anyone on any given night. But for whatever reason, over this stretch, the Sabres have yet to anticipate Crosby’s movements.
The reason? He doesn’t give them time to. Look how quickly the puck arrives and leaves his stick once he retrieves it in the corner.
I don’t know how you defend that unless you’re The Flash. Other playmakers (Mike Ribeiro comes to mind) would pull the puck back and assess the situation before hitting an open man. Crosby excels against the inexperienced Sabres (particularly on the power play, as seen there) because he just moves.
We’ll wrap this up with a power play goal by Letang that encapsulates all three of the traits we’ve discussed that makes Crosby a Sabres killer. It’s this one.
Yes, that’s Josh Gorges getting mauled by Crosby at the half boards. But this time, the Sabres don’t get drawn towards Crosby. Initially. Instead, they all settle into their positions and let Gorges pressure Crosby into a mistake.
This is fine.
But Gorges doesn’t handle Crosby. Crosby shifts up-ice. Crosby shifts back down-ice. Crosby dekes, Crosby spins, and Crosby curls away from Gorges into the slot. He has escaped.
And, like a Millennium Falcon to a tractor beam, the Sabres are drawn to him.
The puck escapes out of the encirclement and ends up in the back of the Sabres net. That wasn’t even a power play. It was Crosby, at even-strength, single-handedly breaking down the Sabres’ defensive coverage with superior skill, vision, and strength.
Two forces converge in this stretch from 2010-17.
On one side, you have a generational talent. Sidney Crosby possesses speed, skill, and vision unlike any other player in this NHL era. He is special.
On the other side, you have a Buffalo Sabres side going through one of the worst stretches in franchise history. The 2016-17 Sabres show the kind of talent at both ends of the ice that these iterations we just witnessed did not. Those Sabres made poor decisions, lacked awareness, and exposed vulnerabilities Crosby was more than happy to exploit every year.
Special player meets inferior team sailing into mediocrity. Hot knife meets butter.
There’s hope in Buffalo, though. Rasmus Ristolainen and Dimitry Kulikov are faster, younger, and growing. Buffalo can lean on them to shut down Crosby instead of the aging Gorges or the departed, lanky Myers. Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo are physical and defensive upgrades at forward. The Sabres’ rebuild is nearing its end; so, too, may be the days where Sidney Crosby runs wild in Buffalo.