PITTSBURGH -- At one point this season, the Penguins' power play was one of the NHL's great unsolved mysteries.
A unit that for years was among the league's best was forced to endure injuries to virtually every single one of its top power-play contributors, including Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Jake Guentzel and more. Partially as a result, the Penguins struggled to maintain consistency with the man-advantage, enduring huge droughts through the first several months of the season.
But now, the firepower is back. And so too is the production.
Tuesday's 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs was just the latest example. Crosby, Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker all scored on the power play, as Pittsburgh took full advantage of its first three chances with the man-advantage.
Funny how adding one of the best players in the world changes things, huh?
Through the first 45 games of the season -- 28 of which were played without Crosby -- the Penguins had converted on 18.9% of their power-play chances. But since Crosby returned from sports hernia surgery on Jan. 14, the Penguins have gone 13-for-42 (31%) in the last 13 games. Including Tuesday, the Penguins have now scored power-play goals in each of the last five games.
At the same time, on a night the Penguins dominated with the man-advantage, the biggest power play might have been in the standings. With the win, the Penguins (37-15-6) claimed the Metropolitan Division lead -- something that seemed improbable just a few weeks back based on the lead the Washington Capitals built and the way the injury bug kept taking a bite out of the Penguins.
On Dec. 4, Pittsburgh sat in fifth place in the Metro, trailing the Capitals by 13 points. But over the last two-and-a-half months, Pittsburgh played some of the best hockey in the league, posting a 23-6-2 record to overtake their Metropolitan Division rival.
Early on, special teams began to play a leading role in Tuesday's game. The Penguins got their first power-play opportunity of the game when Toronto's Dmytro Timashov went to the box for slashing. At 11:41 in the first period, Crosby made a beautiful feed to Rust, who took Frederik Andersen top shelf for his 23rd goal of the season.
Even though Rust missed the first month of the season with a hand injury, he has become one of the Penguins' most consistent offensive weapons, earning himself time on the top power play along the way. Tuesday's goal marked his first point in February.