Sidney Crosby hits 1,000 assists, continues to lift Penguins

PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby is stuck in a moment where he can't help but think about the history he's making. Pittsburgh is so focused on putting the Penguins in a playoff berth that it's unlikely considering all the weight he was carrying a month ago.

Besides, there really isn't a need. The heights Crosby is reaching now are not only reserved for their best era, but the greatest of all time.

The latest proof came Thursday against Detroit, when the longtime Penguins captain became the 14th NHL player to reach 1,000 career assists and the league's 10th all-time leading scorer with a trademark backhand flick.

Crosby's deft feed to the slot ended up on teammate Erik Karlsson's stick. The defenseman did the rest, as Alex Lyon scored 1:40 into the game to lift the Penguins' 6-5 victory past Washington into the Eastern Conference's second wild-card spot.

“He plays at his best when the stakes are high, like all the great players of all time,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “He's one of those guys.”

Crosby became the seventh player to record 1,000 assists with a franchise, joining Ray Bourque (1,111 with Boston), Wayne Gretzky (1,086 with Edmonton), Steve Yzerman (1,063 with Detroit), and Mario Lemieux (1,033). with Detroit) and Joe Sakic (1,016 with Colorado/Quebec).

He needed the seventh-somest games to reach the 1,269-game milestone.

Crosby finished Thursday with a goal and two assists, raising his career total to 1,591, one more than Hall of Famer Bill Esposito. Sakic is ninth with 1,641, Lemieux is eighth with 1,723 and Yzerman, Crosby's boyhood idol, is seventh with 1,755.

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Given the way Crosby is playing at age 36, if he's healthy, it's a matter of when he passes, not when.

“I didn't see it that close,” Crosby said. “But to be in that company with all those players you mentioned, that means a lot. I grew up watching those players.”

Crosby's teammates sometimes called his no. Like looking at 87 and shaking their heads at what they see. Crosby assisted on Drew O'Connor's goal no. Collected 999 in the first period and tied Esposito on the scoring list with a brilliant deflection off the left post.

He collected a rebound off Rickard Rakell as the Penguins improved to 7-0-3 in their last 10 games. It's an upswing that few saw a month ago when they were trailing 13th in the East.

They are eighth with three games remaining thanks to Crosby, who was voted the club's most valuable player by his teammates for the 12th time earlier in the day.

The 36-year-old certainly plays like one.

“He's a big part of our game and he's a big reason we're in the situation we're in,” Carlson said of Crosby. “And we're going to need him playing like this here for him to have a chance.”

Chris LeTang and Jeff Carter both scored 10 goals for Pittsburgh. Alex Nedeljkovic stopped 25 shots and the Penguins overcame another late meltdown in which they let a two-goal third period lead slip away again.

It's been an issue all season. This time Pittsburgh came back to control its playoff destiny.

“We're finding ways to win right now,” Nedeljkovic said. “They're not always pretty. You want them to be a little bit better than that but you know, like I said, we'll take two points tonight.”

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Pittsburgh was nine points out of the postseason two weeks ago. Crosby and Nedeljkovic made a surprising late run as the Penguins quickly landed deals in Washington, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Now, they have overtaken all three.

The Red Wings' hopes of returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2016 took another hit with their third loss in four games.

Lucas Raymond had his second hat trick for Detroit. Jeff Petry, a former Penguin, added his third season. Dylan Larkin scored his 33rd goal for the Red Wings. Leon made 21 saves but couldn't stop Carlson late as the Penguins earned the extra point.

“It's hard to get a point,” Larkin said. “Again, they got two and that's a team we've got to catch. It's a positive not to be out. They played well and we're right there.”

Compared to a Penguins skid that sounded like a library at PPG Paints Arena a month ago and their chances of making the playoffs remote at best, this game had a postseason feel to it.

Those odds have improved significantly behind the continued brilliance of Crosby and the emergence of Nedeljkovic, signed in the offseason to back up behind Tristan Jarry, taking over a spot in net at the season's most crucial juncture.

Nedeljkovic played down his role, instead pointing to the player who defined the franchise for a generation.

“It's special, especially these two weeks, watching him play,” Nedeljkovic said of Crosby. “He's a man on a mission.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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