Sidney Crosby had seen enough.
After the offensively challenged Penguins dropped a 4-0 decision to New Jersey on Nov. 14, their third loss in a four-game stretch, Pittsburgh's captain fully supported a closed-door players' meeting called by fellow standout centre Evgeni Malkin.
"We're all frustrated," Crosby told reporters at the time, with the Penguins sporting a 10-7-0 record. "We feel we can do better and expectations are high."
A two-time recipient of the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer, Crosby certainly wasn't pulling his weight with nine points in those 17 games. Since his 102-point rookie campaign in 2005-06, he had averaged more than a point per game until this season.
A month later, with the 15-10-3 Penguins not close to resembling the offensive powerhouse many expected, general manager Jim Rutherford fired head coach Mike Johnston and brought in Mike Sullivan from the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate. The same Sullivan who guided Boston to 41 wins and first place in the Northeast Division in the first of his two seasons with the Bruins in 2003-04.
Many figured it was a lost season for Crosby and the Penguins, who hadn't missed the playoffs since 2006. Under Johnston, Pittsburgh stood 27th among the NHL's 30 teams in goals per game and 29th on the power play.
But whether it was Sullivan's arrival, a tweak to the system, being left off the Metropolitan Division squad for the Jan. 31 all-star game or something else, Crosby and the Penguins have been on a mission ever since.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Crosby has gone from outside the top 25 in league scoring to third, with 32 goals and 78 points through Sunday.
When Mike Sullivan took over on Dec. 12, Sidney Crosby was tied for 79th in scoring. He's now alone in 3rd place with 75. @NHLonNBCSports— @liam_mchugh
Among his recent accomplishments:
- From the Christmas break to March 2, Crosby led all players with 38 points (19 goals, 19 assists) in 29 games.
- On Feb. 2, Crosby took control against Ottawa, scoring a natural hat trick in a 6-5 Penguins win.
- On Feb. 6, the native of Cole Harbour, N.S., reached the 900-point mark in his career with a goal and two assists against the hometown Florida Panthers.
- He beat Anaheim goalie John Gibson twice on breakaways in a 6-2 win on Feb. 8, marking the ninth straight home game — a career high — that Crosby scored at least one goal, the longest since Mario Lemieux's 11-game streak in the 1995-96 season.
- Crosby has almost singlehandedly carried the Penguins to a 7-1 record with Malkin nursing an upper-body injury, posting four goals and 11 points, including four multi-point performances. In 15 games Malkin has missed since Feb. 5, Crosby has put up 22 points.
"We heard about it so much," Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Jenn Menendez of Crosby's early-season scoring slump. "You know what? He was still one of our top players. Maybe he didn't put up points, but he was a leader in the [dressing] room and on the ice."
Until Malkin's latest injury, Pittsburgh was clinging to a playoff berth in a wild-card spot but six consecutive wins have bumped the Penguins to third in the Metropolitan, three points back of the second-place New York Rangers with a game in hand.
The 28-year-old Crosby, who has 19 points in March, is the only NHL player this season to have two points streaks of nine or more games. The first was an 11-game run (12 goals, 22 points) from Jan. 12 to Feb. 8.
12-game points streak
The other was a 12-game points streak (six goals, 20 points) that ended in Thursday's 3-0 loss to the visiting Devils.
Barring a complete collapse or injury, Chicago's Patrick Kane (94 points) should finish atop the scoring race.
While he probably won't win a third Art Ross, Crosby could (should?) win a third Hart Trophy as NHL MVP if Pittsburgh finishes with the second-most points in the Eastern Conference.
Following the November loss in New Jersey, the Penguins were averaging 2.06 goals per game. Pittsburgh is now sixth with the Rangers at 2.81, having scored at least three goals 24 times in 42 games since Dec. 21. The power play is 19th with a 17.9 per cent success rate.
"We're not the biggest team," Crosby said. "Our speed and work ethic create a lot of chances for us. We've got to keep playing that way."