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Wise beyond his years

"We can't get too far ahead of ourselves. All we can do is approach each game with the right attitude."

Sage perspective from a battle-tested captain? Well, partly correct. Those sentiments were supplied by Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins as his highly-regarded team was winning their second straight game for only the first time in over a month. He is their captain, but at just 20 years old, he is also the youngest ever in the NHL. So, you can hardly call him battle tested at such a tender age. Still, his cautious attitude is disarming, especially when the Penguins' talent level can easily breed overconfidence.

I asked Crosby about the team's rather uneven start, postulating that maybe the young core group overlooked how well teams would prepare for them after the Penguins' successful 2006-07 campaign. He replied, "I don't think that's it. We went through it last year when there was a lot of attention paid to us. We are a young group and we're gaining experience all the time. We've been playing good hockey lately and hopefully we can start getting some results."

Coach Michel Therrien felt the same way. He said, "We're headed in the right direction. I like what I see from this group in recent games."

Actually, the Penguins' 10-11-2 start this season is similar to that of a year ago. They have been losing a lot of close games, which is disconcerting in that they excelled at winning them during the second half of last season. "The difference is in making plays" Crosby offered. "Whether it is a pass, a hit, blocked shot or save, we need to make plays at the right time. We're starting to do that more consistently."

Crosby was speaking collectively, but that's his nature. He has points in 21 of 23 games -- the picture of consistency. But it is all about the team game for the NHL's reigning Most Valuable Player. To Crosby, it isn't that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has struggled to perform up to last season's 40-win form. There's no pointing at Jordan Staal, who tallied 29 goals as an 18-year old rookie but has netted two as a 19-year old sophomore. No, Crosby has a much broader perspective than most his age. He knows the rigors of constant scrutiny and elevated expectations. That's why he is the perfect captain for this talented young group.

Crosby's example is precisely why the Penguins will continue to grow, learn and excel, both on and off the ice. He answers all media inquiries with thoughtful consideration, all the while looking his questioner in the eye. If Sid the Kid is going to sit and answer the uncomfortable questions, then by default his teammates feel compelled to do the same.

Likewise on the ice, Crosby sets the tone. He is unselfish with the puck and willing to go into the high traffic areas to make plays. He is the hardest working player on the ice every time he jumps the boards, and never takes a shift off. That willingness to work separates the great from the regular and the special from the great. And make no mistake. Crosby is special.

The net effect for the Penguins -- call it the Crosby quotient -- is that there is no shirking of responsibilities. Everyone is beholden to one another. I don't care what his birth certificate says, that is damn admirable leadership at any age.

The league now reverts to games outside the divisions, with some cross-over road trips under way. The Dallas Stars -- winners of four-straight since their front-office shuffle -- have gone east for tilts on Broadway (Sun.), Long Island (Mon.) and New Jersey (Wed.) before heading to Pittsburgh for Crosby and the Penguins' return to action on Friday.

Meanwhile, the up-and-down Tampa Bay Lightning -- now on a four-game losing streak after winning five-straight, which followed six-consecutive losses -- head west for midweek match-ups back-to-back in Chicago (Wed.) and Detroit (Thurs.). Maybe the change of scenery will spark them on a streak in the other direction.

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