Crosby leads Penguins push ahead of big week against Rangers

PITTSBURGH– Sidney Crosbyat 35, continues to drive the Pittsburgh Penguins bus.

The center, in his 18th NHL season, is averaging 1.20 points per game (78 points; 29 goals, 49 assists in 65 games), his third highest since averaging 1.30 in 2013-14.

However, that didn’t provide the Penguins (33-22-10) a comfortable cushion in the hunt to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs ahead of their game against the New York Rangers at PPG Paints Arena on Sunday (16 h HE; TNT, SN 360, TVAS).

“It should be full throttle here,” Crosby said after practice Wednesday. “See what we can do and get all the points we can get. I think it’s a good thing when you play important games every night. It’s going to bring out our best. It should make us even sharper .

“If we find a way to get in (the playoffs), I think it will be something that will serve us well. But we have to find a way to get in first.”

The Penguins are tied with the New York Islanders, who have played three more games, for the first wildcard in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Pittsburgh and New York are three points ahead of the Florida Panthers, who have played two more games than the Penguins.

Crosby hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2005-06, his rookie season. Pittsburgh has qualified in 16 straight seasons, the longest active streak in the NHL, and has done its part to keep it that way with five points (two goals, three assists) in its last three games.

Video: PHI@PIT: Crosby takes the lead with a PPG

“He’s our leader”, line mate Jake Guentzel said after Crosby scored a power-play goal in a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. “He’s one of the best players in the world, if not the best. You don’t expect anything else. We’re lucky to have him in the team.”

There was also help.

jason zucker scored eight goals in their last seven games. Yevgeny Malkin, now 36, has 68 points (23 goals, 45 assists) in 65 games. Guentzel has 27 goals, Rickard Rakell at 22, and Bryan Rust at 15.

But for the most part, the Penguins are keeping pace with their captain. They are 16-6-4 when Crosby scores at least one goal. When he doesn’t, they’re 17-16-6.

“It goes without saying that he’s one of the best players for a reason,” Zucker said. “He’s our captain. He’s our leader.”

Crosby has at least one point in 45 of 65 games this season, going without one in three consecutive games only twice: three in a row from Oct. 25-29 and four in a row from Dec. 27-Jan. 2.

There’s hope the Penguins could start to mirror Crosby’s consistency.

Pittsburgh is 6-1-1 since giving up a playoff berth with four straight losses Feb. 17-23. Similar positive stretches were canceled almost immediately. The Penguins were 14-2-2 from Nov. 9-Dec. 15 before losing seven of their next eight. They started the season 4-0-1, then lost the next seven.

The latest surge, which continued with Saturday’s win, could provide some confidence heading into a week with three out of four games against Rangers.

“For us to get this win is huge,” Guentzel said. “It’s a big week for us. Three against Rangers. Playoff feeling. It’s going to be a fun week for us.”

If there’s another dip, however, Crosby is confident he’ll get Pittsburgh back in the playoffs.

“He does so much for our team,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He does so much for our group in so many ways, both on and off the ice. Both sides of the puck in all situations on the ice. He is, for the most part, our guy of choice.

“Certainly in my tenure here he’s been our MVP for sure. I think he makes a compelling case for being the MVP of the whole League just by the nature of what he does for our team in as an organization, day in and day out.”

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