Like he does with so many things, Sidney Crosby makes it look easy.
There was the time he shot the puck off the post and swatted the rebound into the net out of midair. Or, the time he waited for the puck to drop and backhanded it in for a goal. Or, when knocked the puck up to himself with his stick before tapping it in.
“I think it’s just instincts,” Crosby said.
It’s actually a mix of natural talent, instincts, awareness, timing, patience and hand-eye coordination. Crosby’s Pittsburgh teammates are still amazed every time he does it — and they should be.
“It’s just a reactionary thing,” Penguins winger Conor Sheary said. “When you see the puck go in the air, you just try to bat it. He’s better at it than a lot of other guys, and I don’t know what that is.”
Batting a fluttering piece of frozen rubber 3 inches in diameter and 1-inch thick with a stick blade 2 to 3 inches wide is no simple task. Doing it at full speed in an NHL playoff game certainly raises the degree of difficulty. Yet a handful of goals have been scored or saved already this postseason with a player somehow able to connecting their stick with an airborne puck at the perfect time.
As recently as Tuesday night, Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin batted the puck out of the air off the post in Crosby-esque fashion for the game-winner to beat the Penguins.
“I hit the post and it’s a good thing I didn’t raise my arms up,” Ovechkin said. “I finished up the play and got lucky.”
Teams don’t have drills for this kind of thing, but hockey players are always noodling with the puck, so the familiarity with both stick and puck becomes ingrained at an early age. Playing baseball and other sports growing up can’t hurt. Washington Capitals forward Brett Connolly, who scored a baseball-style goal with Boston in 2015, thinks players learn the skill and try to use it when they can.
“Your athleticism kind of takes over at that point,” Connolly said. “Once your hand-eye is at a high level, you kind of track the puck. I think as hockey players we’re always looking around, we’re so quick, our eyes are all over the place and we’re staring at the puck. You kind of just take a chance at it and sometimes it works out.”
It worked out for Toronto’s Connor Brown on his goal in Game 5 of the first round when the puck bounced off a defenseman’s stick and he knocked it in before goaltender Tuukka Rask knew where it was. Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t know where the puck was when captain Nick Foligno whacked it out of the air to prevent a goal during the first round against Washington, either, a product of years of work.
“That was actually my guy, so the least I could do was bat it out,” Foligno said. “Honestly, I practice it so much with playing around with the puck that you just get used to it playing so many years. Obviously, a little bit of luck to make sure you get it out and not hit somewhere else.”
To the surprise of no one, Crosby’s career is full of similar highlights. He once slugged a home run during batting practice at PNC Park some years ago.
On the ice, Crosby doesn’t have to hit the puck as hard as Aaron Judge hits a baseball or as precisely as Roger Federer hits a tennis ball, but Penguins winger Bryan Rust correctly points out: “They’re also looking for it to be in the air. Our sport, the puck’s not supposed to be in the air.”
Crosby and others figure it out anyway.
“There’s a lot of things you’ve got to be aware of, and you need pucks to be in those areas to do it,” Crosby said. “Sometimes you can go a period of time where you don’t get a puck that sits right there for you. I’ve been around the net when pucks have been able to kind of just lay there for me. There’s a lot of different factors, but I think just being in and around the net trying to expect different things and being ready for it.”
Playing peewee baseball explains some of it for Crosby, a two-time season and playoff MVP who works on redirecting and bating pucks so often in practice it has become a routine way for him to score.
Not so much for others, like Bruins forward Sean Kuraly, who played the waiting game during Game 1 of Boston’s series against Toronto and batted the puck in while falling over Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen.
“You have to wait for the puck to come down,” the otherwise-impatient Kuraly said. “I’m a terrible baseball player. It has nothing to do with baseball.”
Goalies with thicker blades on their sticks get into the act, too. Andersen robbed Rick Nash on a sure-fire goal in the first round in Game 6, and Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray extended his stick to stop Ovechkin in Game 2 of the Penguins-Capitals series.
Goaltenders are counted on to keep the puck out by any means necessary.
Scoring a goal by batting the puck in? Well, that’s just fun.
“It’s a creative game. You’ve got to mix it up and be creative,” Connolly said. “To score, you’ve got to try and do something different sometimes to get one.”
AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golen in Boston and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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