PITTSBURGH — No matter how many times many different Rangers have insisted that this series against the Penguins isn’t all about Sidney Crosby, the focus of the first five games was, in fact, primarily on Sidney Crosby.
But if the Blueshirts doth protest too much, it was understandable. For Crosby and linemates Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust spent the first four-plus matches of this first-round playoff matchup chewing up and spitting out the Rangers’ power matchup unit, centered by Mika Zibanejad.
Until, that is, Crosby absorbed that hit from Jacob Trouba midway through the second period of Game 5 that both forced him out of the remainder of that contest and keeps him sidelined Friday night for the potential elimination Game 6 for the Blueshirts.
Crosby, of course, has a history of concussions, so it is unclear whether the Pittsburgh captain — who had been playing some of the most compelling, dominating playoff hockey of his career — would be in the position to pull a Willis Reed if the Rangers were able to send the series back to the Garden for a Game 7 on Sunday.
But first things first. The Blueshirts need to take advantage of Crosby’s absence Friday just as they did Wednesday, when they immediately struck for three goals within 3:36 after No. 87 left the ice to overcome a 2-0 deficit before extending the series with a 5-3 victory.
In theory, Crosby’s absence should have freed Zibanejad and linemates Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano to play with more of an attack-oriented mindset after spending so much energy and focus on stopping Crosby and company.
“I think we haven’t created offense maybe enough and have maybe been a little too worried about the line we’re playing against and stopping them,” said Zibanejad, who had yet to score a goal through the first five games. “I think I said after Game 1 or 2 that the best way to stop their offense is to create some of your own.
“But I think overall we’re going to try and work through it, it’s not easy, it’s not an easy opponent. Just try and play our game and really just enjoy the challenge and enjoy the intensity of the playoffs.”
It is not as if a Nate Bowman-type support player was going to fill Crosby’s spot the way that the Knicks’ backup center filled in for Reed in Los Angeles for Game 6 of that memorialized 1970 NBA Finals in which Wilt Chamberlain scored 45 points in the Lakers’ victory.
Rather it was Evgeni Malkin, one of the NHL’s Greatest 100, even if inexplicably snubbed by the panel selecting the all-century club, filling the slot between Guentzel and Rust. By the way? It was that line that produced the 3-3 goal at the Garden in Game 5, with Guentzel burying a rebound for his seventh of the series after a mishap between Zibanejad and Igor Shesterkin.
That came 13 seconds after the Blueshirts had tied the score. It also dropped the Zibanejad line to minus-four for the series, on for only two goals for, but six against. Crosby or not, Game 6 was still going to represent a significant challenge.
“I always talk to our guys about when he is on the ice, it’s not just about Sidney Crosby, but that all five guys have to be aware,” Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant said. “But I still want us to play our game.
“I never once told them, ‘Let’s be in a defensive shell and make sure they don’t get chances.’ They’re going to get chances any way you look at it, they spend a lot of time in the offensive zone, they’re a great line, a talented line, but we’ve still got to play our game.”
Crosby’s absence, of course, changes the dynamic of Game 6. But the Rangers still need to play their game. They need Shesterkin to be at the top of his game. The Blueshirts have not played well enough for a consistent amount of times in this series to take anything for granted.
The Rangers need more from their top six. They need Artemi Panarin to be dangerous. They need the Zibanejad line to assert itself.
“We still need to play our game and do the things we did all year,” No. 93 said. “The focus is really on us. At times maybe we had too much focus on other things and the opposing team rather than us, but I try to keep reminding myself to focus on what I have to do, play my game and have them worry about what we can do.”
In Game 6, at least, Zibanejad and his mates do not have to worry about Crosby.