The Associated Press•Dec 23, 2016, 2:44 AM
PITTSBURGH -- This very week a year ago, Sidney Crosby became a different player. He became Sidney Crosby again.
The Penguins hope to see the revived Crosby again Friday night, when they play New Jersey in their second game in as many nights -- and the first of successive games against the Devils, with the second to follow Tuesday night in Newark.
Crosby scored his NHL leading-23rd goal Thursday night, and the Penguins looked strong throughout the first period in Columbus, leading 1-0 after 20 minutes. But the next 40 minutes were their worst of the season, as the streaking Blue Jackets scored seven consecutive goals -- including six against goalie Matt Murray in the worst start of his short career -- for a 7-1 rout and their 11th straight victory.
"We can't just shut it down after that (the first period)," defenseman Ian Cole said as the Penguins followed up a five-goal win Tuesday over the New York Rangers, 7-2, with a six-goal loss to the Blue Jackets.
With the Penguins playing again less than 24 hours later, Crosby quickly filed the Columbus debacle into the back of his mind, to be pulled out again when the Penguins play the Blue Jackets again Feb. 3 in Pittsburgh.
"We got to move on ... we've got a game (Friday) night, (but) any time you lose 7-1, you've got to be motivated the next time you play them -- to make sure it doesn't happen again," Crosby said.
The Devils, of course, hope it does happen again as it did Thursday night, when they ended a seven-game losing streak (0-6-1) by shutting out the Philadelphia Flyers 4-0, New Jersey goalie Cory Schneider needed to make only 16 saves. The Devils responded to pregame criticism by general manager Ray Shero, the former Penguins GM, and coach John Hynes.
"Play harder. Really. Play (bleeping) harder," Hynes told his players, as reported by The Record.
They did, too. Now the Devils (13-13-7) will try to do so for a second successive night.
"We were tired of losing," Schneider said. "And we showed that."
This will be only the second Devils-Penguins matchup of the season. The Penguins (21-8-5) scored one of their signature wins of the season in the initial game, 4-3 on Nov. 26 in Pittsburgh, as Crosby -- who else? -- scored the tying goal with only 14 seconds left in regulation. The Penguins then won in a shootout.
Then again, it seems that Crosby has scored almost every night in the past year.
He scored only six goals in his first 32 games last season, an uncharacteristically poor start for a characteristically excellent scorer. But as he began to adjust to then-new coach Mike Sullivan's system, the goals started coming quickly -- six in his next six games and 30 in his next 48, starting Dec. 26, and 36 by season's end. And by the middle of June, the Penguins lifted their second Crosby-led Stanley Cup.
Crosby's 53 goals in 76 games over the last calendar year are the most in the league -- he had 21 goals in a 25-game stretch this season -- and they explain the Penguins' success since then.
"It's a hockey game, we got beat, but there are a lot of them," Sullivan said after the loss in Columbus. "We're not going to overthink it. We're a good team, and we can play with anybody."
Especially when Crosby is playing better than everybody. Or exactly what he has done since Christmas a year ago, when he became Sidney Crosby again.