Pittsburgh's star is being The Star, and Sidney Crosby is a big reason why the Penguins already have the Senators in a very precarious playoff position.
Crosby scored three goals in the opening 21 minutes 15 seconds for his second career playoff hat trick as the Penguins held off two Ottawa comebacks to beat the Senators 4-3 Friday night in Game 2 of the NHL Eastern Conference semifinals.
Ottawa is down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series to the one Eastern Conference team no one wants to trail. And it's partly because the Senators are letting the one player they cannot afford to beat them do exactly that — and at the expense of their own top star, Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.
Karlsson, fighting through an Achilles injury that occurred against Pittsburgh and put him out for much of the season, was beaten on two of Crosby's goals and committed the penalty that led to the Pittsburgh superstar's power-play goal.
"We finished pretty strong but we started poorly and some of the blame is on me," Karlsson said. "(I'm) struggling a little bit, and it is what it is. I don't have the answer to it myself, I've got to figure my body out and obviously I'm not feeling or playing the same way I am used to."
Karlsson and the Senators need to figure it out in a hurry, too. They are 0-7 in their playoff history when trailing 2-0 in a series, and now they're down by that margin to a star-laden team that was easily the conference's best during the regular season and one that already has 33 goals in eight playoff games.
"I don't think there's any doubt he's fighting it a bit," said defenceman Chris Phillips of Karlsson.
The Senators are hoping all-star forward Jason Spezza will be ready for Game 3 as he recovers from a back injury that put him out for the conference quarter-finals against Montreal.
It was Crosby's night as he dominated play throughout the game.
"I think the way he plays with so much speed, so much passion, everybody follows," said teammate Brooks Orpik.
Brenden Morrow had the other Penguins goal, and it proved to be a big one that made it 4-2. Tomas Vokoun made 19 saves for the win. Kyle Turris, Colin Greening and Jean-Gabriel Pageau replied for Ottawa.
Pageau scored his fourth playoff goal 2:01 into the third period to get the Senators back to within a goal, but Vokoun — who took over for former Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury in the first-round Islanders series and hasn't given up the job after four games — shut out Ottawa the rest of the way.
Senators coach Paul MacLean blamed the poor start, not the inability to cash in further during a third period largely dominated by Ottawa.
"Catch-up hockey is losing hockey," he said. "Giving up three goals to Crosby is losing hockey, too."
Crosby, who missed a quarter of the season with a broken jaw, was the difference after not scoring in the Penguins' Game 1 victory Wednesday, when post-season scoring leader Evgeni Malkin had a goal and an assist.
"You don't get those opportunities all the time, especially in the playoffs, to score three," Crosby said. "It's a great feeling. But there's still lots of hockey, so you don't want to get too caught up in it."
Malkin assisted on Crosby's third goal Friday and now has a league-leading 11 assists in the playoffs, including at least one in all eight Penguins games.
Crosby, who was on pace to cruise to the NHL scoring title before breaking his jaw, gave Pittsburgh the lead just 3:16 in to the game by skating through three Senators, including a masterful fake to elude Karlsson before beating Craig Anderson with a wrister at the bottom of the circle for his 100th career playoff point.
He reached the mark in 75 career games, making him the fifth fastest to do so — and Mario Lemieux, the Penguins' co-owner, was one of the first four to do so.
Asked afterward what happened on the play, an incredulous Karlsson replied, "Are you blind?"
Turris answered nearly 10 minutes later with his fourth of the playoffs, a bad-angle shot from along the goal-line that deflected off Vokoun, but Crosby came right back less than a minute later with a similar goal. He grabbed Chris Kunitz's drop pass and scored on another wrist shot from along the goal-line as Karlsson went down to block the shot after flowing with the pass but couldn't deflect it at 16:07 of the first.
Karlsson, the Norris Trophy winner whose own season was largely interrupted by a 31-game layoff with an Achilles injury inflicted by Penguins forward Matt Cooke, also figured in Crosby's third goal. He went off for hooking 49 seconds into the second period, and Crosby completed his hat trick 26 seconds into the ensuing power play with a slap shot.
Crosby's third goal prompted MacLean to replace Anderson — who faced exactly a shot a minute while on the ice — with Robin Lehner, who allowed only one goal but a key one the rest of the way.
Greening tried to rally the Senators by scoring only 40 seconds after Crosby's third goal on a wrister from the left circle, Lehner made a strong save on Jarome Iginla's short breakaway.
But Morrow restored Pittsburgh's two-goal lead by deflecting Paul Martin's slap shot from just inside the blue-line that touched both James Neal and Morrow en route to the net at 8:04.
The Penguins outshot the Senators 42-22 but converted only one of six power-play chances.
Crosby's only other career playoff hat trick was against the Capitals in 2009. Lemieux owns the Penguins record with three post-season hat tricks.
Still, Karlsson said, the Senators don't feel like the series against one of the Stanley Cup favourites is gone already, They believe it has only started.
"I think everybody is feeling great in here. We know we can play with them, and we've got to find a way to win on the scoreboard too," Karlsson said. "I'm sure if we keep this up we're going to give them a really good run."