PITTSBURGH (AP) — Sidney Crosby insists he’s not a scoreboard watcher.

Not publicly anyway.

Maybe it’s because the Pittsburgh Penguins’ longtime captain is too occupied with his team to worry about anyone else. Or maybe it’s because Crosby never had much reason to check during Pittsburgh’s run to 16 straight playoff berths between 2007 and 2022.

Or maybe it’s simply because Crosby doesn’t have to check his phone to figure out where the Penguins stand. The evidence is on the countless videoboards that greet players wherever they go inside PPG Paints Arena.

“When I come to the rink, it’s on everywhere,” Crosby said with a smile. “So it’s hard to miss it.”

So is his team’s sudden — and unexpected — late-season push.

Two weeks ago the Penguins were nine points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Fourteen days and 12 out of a possible 14 points later, Pittsburgh will take the ice Thursday against Detroit tied with the Red Wings for ninth in the East, just one point back of Washington with four games remaining.

Heady territory for a team that looked as if it was going through the motions in the aftermath of the trade that sent Stanley Cup-winning forward Jake Guentzel to Carolina. The night the move was made, the Penguins were in a daze while getting drilled 6-0 by Washington. The cloud lingered.

“You acknowledge it and you try to push it down, you try not to think about it, but it affects everybody,” goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic said.

Seven losses over their next nine games followed. It wasn’t until Guenztel’s return in a Hurricanes uniform that the Penguins appeared to wake up. A 4-1 win over Carolina in which Pittsburgh skated with a purpose and discipline that’s been elusive over the previous five months provided a reminder to the guys in the room that the Penguins could still hang with the league’s best when they’re not sulking or making the kinds of mistakes that let multi-goal leads evaporate, a common theme during their first 70ish games.

That confidence has surged in lockstep with the emergence of Nedeljkovic. Signed in the offseason to serve as the backup to Tristan Jarry, Nedeljkovic has become a fixture in the lineup during the most important time of the season.

Not that he wants to talk about it. Nedeljkovic, who is 6-0-2 in his past eight starts, shrugs when asked about his impact. Instead, he points to what’s going on in front of him.

“We haven’t given up a lot of odd-man rushes,” Nedeljkovic said. “We haven’t given up a ton of grade-A chances. We’ve done a good job of keeping things to the outside and then when it matters in the last five, six minutes of the game we’ve really buckled down.”

That hasn’t been the case most of the season. The Penguins have been tied going into the third period 16 times this season. They’ve only won nine of those games, the killer instinct that used to be their trademark during the stretch between 2008-17 when the franchise captured three Stanley Cups and reached the final in another lacking.

The reality is, it’s been that way for a while. Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff series since the second round in 2018. The Penguins missed the postseason for the first time in 17 years last spring and they’ve spent most of this season looking very much like the NHL’s oldest team that they are.

Changes have been made. More are likely coming over the summer. Yet Crosby and longtime teammates Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Bryan Rust are raging against the dying of the light.

Mike Sullivan, the NHL’s second-longest tenured head coach, called the brand of hockey his group is currently playing “inspiring.”

“I always use the phrase when the five guys on the ice have the same heartbeat,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s what it looks like to me right now.”

And because of that, the Penguins have a pulse. One that is quickening as the regular season barrels into its final days.

Pittsburgh is the only one of the four teams who enter play on Thursday within two points of the wild-card spot with a winning record over its past 10 games. The Capitals and Red Wings are treading water. Philadelphia is in a freefall.

Only the Penguins, whose core knows a thing or two about winning in the spring, are playing as if they want to make it to the postseason. Yet they are also well aware of how fickle their odds are. It’s a game-by-game proposition at this point. It has been for a while. Their wiggle room is almost nonexistent.

Almost. Then again, having little margin for error beats having none at all. Considering where they were two weeks ago, they’ll take it.

“For the last 2-3 weeks here, we’ve been right in it,” said Crosby, who has 40 goals in his 19th season and was voted the NHL’s most well-rounded player by his peers on Wednesday. “I think it’s brought out the best in us. We are playing good hockey. I think we believe in our game, we need to continue to do the same thing.”


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