The task at hand was an obvious one, yet provided no easy answers. With 72 points in 51 games heading into that game, Crosby was by far and away the NHL's most prolific scorer, sitting a whole 10 points ahead of John Tavares in second place. His Art Ross, Hart Trophy, Stanley Cup ring, Olympic gold medal and numerous other accolades are already things of hockey lore.
Suffice it to say, the Stars needed to shut down Crosby if they wanted to stand a chance in the game. But for a team that has struggled heavily on the defensive side of the ice this season, whom do you even assign such a seemingly gargantuan task?
How about an undrafted 28 year-old with only 100 games of NHL experience?
As ludicrous as that sounds, that's precisely what Ruff did. The craziest part of all? It actually worked.
Winger Ryan Garbutt, fresh off of playing his 100th career NHL game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, played a career-high 19:02 of ice time that night against the Penguins, the majority of which came head-to-head at even strength against the Crosby line.
In a stunning display of speed and tenacious hard work, Garbutt, alongside linemates Cody Eakin and Antoine Roussel, managed to keep Crosby completely off the scoresheet as Dallas skated to a well-earned 3-0 victory.
Even more impressive is that not only did that line blank the Crosby line, but they also generated more scoring chances going the other direction, outplaying them at both ends of the ice.
Although credit for that win deserves to be spread throughout the entire Stars roster, and Eakin was the member of the line that saw the most of Crosby, it was still a coming out party of sorts for Garbutt. He's a player that has overcome long, near-impossible odds to finally find a niche in the NHL.
Playing junior hockey for his hometown Winnipeg South Blues of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, a Canadian Junior A league below the WHL, Garbutt was never on any NHL draft radars and went unselected. He played four full years for Brown University in the NCAA, and although he never truly excelled, he played well enough to earn his first contract in the pros. After toiling around in the minors for a couple years, including stints in the ECHL and CHL, Garbutt signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Stars in July of 2011. After some time with the AHL Texas Stars made an unlikely NHL debut on February 18th, 2012, at the age of 26.
It turned out to be only the first of many NHL appearances. Using the dogged determination and hard work that saw him climb up from one level of hockey to the next, Garbutt finished off that season in Dallas and has remained with the Stars ever since, signing his second contract with the team, this time a two-year, one-way deal, in July of 2012.
Although only a 4th line player in his first two years in Dallas, Garbutt has developed into something much, much more this season.
Trusted by Ruff in a variety of situations, Garbutt has responded with solid work at both ends of the ice. He is sixth on the Stars in goal-scoring with 10, and 10th in points with 18. He's even fourth in shots, with 105. He's only averaging 12:38 of ice time per game on the season, with 1:17 on the penalty kill, although both numbers have been rising as of late.
Since taking over as the Stars' head coach this summer, Ruff has been trying to implement a specific system for his new club, one that emphasizes speed, transition, and tenacity on the attack. It's a system that is beginning to bear fruit throughout the team, but nobody has benefited from this new style of play as much as Garbutt, who fits into Ruff's style perfectly. He is one of Dallas' fastest skaters, one of the team's hardest on-ice workers, and is third on the squad in hits.
His exuberance has crossed the line at times, hurting the Stars in the form of costly penalties, but that area has been improving as of late. Garbutt's style of play walks a very fine line, but when he stays on the right side of it he has shown, like in the game against the Penguins, just how effective of a player he can be.
Taking into account the success he's had so far this season, the real question now is not about what happens with Garbutt over the next 29 games of the regular season (and possibly more, as the playoffs are still a possibility), but what comes after that: Garbutt, like Ray Whitney, Vernon Fiddler, and Stephane Robidas, is on an expiring contract and is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Making slightly above the league minimum salary at $600,000, Garbutt is a salary cap bargain, but will certainly be due for a raise in his next deal. Considering his age and overall lack of experience at the NHL level, an annual value somewhere in the range of $1.5 million to $2 million seems like a reasonable amount. If Garbutt can continue to fit so well with this team, $1.5 million a season would be a steal for the type of role that Garbutt fills.
But with a handful of promising young prospects fighting their way up from the junior ranks and the AHL, not long away from Dallas, just where does Nill see Garbutt fitting into the future of his club?
The other elephant in the room that's stomping around and making a lot more noise, however, is the upcoming trade deadline on March 5.
With the Stars currently sitting on the outside of the playoff picture and the race getting tighter by the minute, rumors have already been running rampant about Whitney and Fiddler possibly being on their way out, but the better Garbutt plays, the more his name slowly creeps into the conversation. Since Whitney and Fiddler are established NHL veterans with plenty of experience between them they are more obvious targets, but Garbutt remains something of a mystery: is his current level of play sustainable? Would he fit so well in any other system aside from Ruff's? And, most importantly, what are other teams willing to part with in exchange for a player that is still relatively unproven?
With the NHL pausing games from February 7th until the 24th because of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, there remain but a few games left for Nill and the other general managers around the league to gather information and determine their next courses of action. It's going to be a busy time, and a lot is probably going to happen.
Whatever the outcome ends up being for Garbutt, there's no denying that his story of persistence and hard work paying off is a fine example to follow for a Dallas Stars team that is growing and fighting its way to becoming a top team in the Western Conference.