The Pittsburgh Penguins may have been missing a few key pieces Sunday afternoon but the defending Stanley Cup champions still had Sidney Crosby.
That was plenty.
Crosby may have put the final dagger in the Panthers season by recording his first hat trick since last season in a 4-0 victory over Florida at PPG Arena.
Florida only trailed 1-0 when Crosby started his offensive assault on goalie James Reimer but with Marc-Andre Fleury looking like his old self, the Panthers were cooked once he did.
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The Penguins have at least a point in their past nine games against the Panthers and have won 12 of the past 13 against Florida in Pittsburgh.
Crosby, who now has 21 goals and 55 points in 35 games against the Panthers, is a big reason why.
“You give that team chances and they bury them,” Shawn Thornton said. “Sidney is, arguably, the best player in the world and if you give him chances, he’s going to score.”
The Panthers ended their three-game road trip against the top teams in the point-heavy Metropolitan Division with mixed results.
Florida was held to just four goals in the three games, beating the Rangers in a shootout at Madison Square Garden yet losing in Columbus and Pittsburgh.
The Panthers are back home for three games with little to no margin of error if there is any hope of a playoff spot still remaining.
For the Panthers to get to the magical 93 point mark (which it appears may be good enough for the final wild card spot), they would have to win 10 of their final 11 games.
“They had nine guys who played for their [minor league] team either this year or last,” interim coach Tom Rowe said, “and they played a very effective and simple game. We responded in spurts but I would have thought we would get to the net more than we did.”
The day started nice enough for the Panthers with Jaromir Jagr getting a rousing ovation when introduced in the starting lineup.
At the midway point of the first, Jagr – who was a big part of Pittsburgh’s hockey resurgence in the 1990s – was honored by the Penguins for being part of the NHL 100 team.
“That was nice of them,” Jagr said, “but I would rather win the hockey game. That’s the only thing I was thinking of.”
Despite missing a number of key players – including the 33 goals and 72 points from Evgeni Malkin – the Penguins were simply the better team.
Pittsburgh not only never trailed, but could have been up three goals heading into the second period.
Instead, Reimer made a number of big saves in the first as Florida went into the first break only down 1-0 after Patric Hornqvist batted a puck flipped over the goal cage from Phil Kessel past Reimer.
Fleury said those two were working on that play during pregame.
“Tip your cap to them then,” Thornton said with a frown. “You don’t want to be battling that team from behind.”
The Pens did, eventually, take complete control in the second period.
With tossing back every thing Florida had to offer, the Panthers were in big trouble when Crosby scored his first at 14:15 of the second and were all but done when he got his second less than two minutes later.
Florida looked to tie the score when Pittsburgh native Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith came down on the rush with Trocheck passing up the shot to Smith – who couldn’t find the puck.
Not long afterward, Trocheck got another prime chance yet his shot was stopped by Fluery.
Moments after Trocheck was stoned, Crosby made it 2-0 with a slick shot from the right circle which zipped by Reimer. Crosby later made it 3-0 with 3:53 left in the second period.
Five minutes into the third, Crosby scored his third of the day sending dozens – if not over a hundred – baseball caps onto the ice as the Panthers could only stand by and watch.
After winning just three of the past 13 games, when the playoffs start next month, it looks like they’ll be watching that from the side as well.
All three of Crosby’s goals came off a primary pass from Jake Guentzel with Conor Sheary getting the secondary assist.
“At this point, we’re not making any excuses. They were the better team,” captain Derek MacKenzie said.
“They are in the position they are in because of their team game and we just didn’t have it. ... I don’t want to take anything away from [Crosby], but we didn’t score. We have to find ways to get on the board. He did. Big time.”