By Stu Hackel
Depending on your rooting interest, he’s either St. Sidney or Sid Vicious -- few people seem to feel anything in between. But love him or hate him, no one should deny what Sidney Crosby does with a puck when a hockey game is to be won.
Crosby may or may not have kicked Ryan Callahan’s skates out from under him last night at Madison Square Garden -- it sure looks like he did from the replay -- but if that’s your main takeaway from the Penguins' 3-1 win over the Rangers, you’re missing some great hockey.
The incident in question (described and well illustrated by Greg Wyshynski last night on Yahoo’s Puck Daddy blog for those who missed it) was of minor consequence in the outcome of the match. The Rangers didn’t play a solid game last night and were especially anemic in the second period when the Penguins took command. Pittsburgh played consistently, if not thrillingly, for their fifth win in a row. They now have 19 points in their last 20 games and they did it because Crosby orchestrates their attack as well as any player does for any team in hockey.
The Penguins skated well, but had trouble getting pucks to the net in the first period because the Rangers' checking scheme took important areas of the ice away from them. They made some adjustments in the second period, starting with long passes through the neutral zone that opened the ice for them, allowed them to gain the offensive zone and spend some quality time there or create odd man rushes. The goal that turned out to be the game-winner displayed that adjustment and Crosby’s talents quite well.
If you look carefully, you see two clever plays by Crosby. The first is when Kris Letang fires a long pass down the right side to Crosby at the far blue line. With Marc Staal challenging him, Crosby makes a beautiful little touch pass to Pascal Dupuis that catches Staal flatfooted. Dupuis drives along the boards and drops the pass to Crosby, who somehow sees Letang taking the open space on the left side -- great vision by Letang there, too -- and backhands a perfect pass cross ice through traffic. Letang buries the puck past Henrik Lundqvist.
The last pass was gorgeous, but Crosby made effective little touch passes like that first one all night, subtle change of direction plays to a teammate that were designed to freeze whoever is checking him. Those passes allow Crosby to move forward without the puck into an area where he’s free of coverage, can get the puck back and go to work in a more dangerous piece of real estate.
It’s not the kind of thing that often makes the highlight reel on SportsCenter or NHL on the Fly, but it’s something that few can do consistently well and it helps secure two points at the final buzzer.
With the Penguins up 3-1 early in the third period, Crosby broke in 2-on-1 with Chris Kunitz and feathered what looked like a great pass across that Kunitz couldn’t corral. It would have sealed the deal a lot sooner, but it also underscored the fact that Crosby’s linemates, while good players, are not nearly the kind of elite wingers who might more consistently finish his passes. There have been rumblings that GM Ray Shero was working on a trade for someone like that, but he denied it. "You always are talking to everyone, but it's really hard to make deals these days," Shero said during our conversation during the first intermission at the Garden. (So when he engineers a big swap in the next week or so, you won't be able to say you read it here first.)
Back to Crosby's leg swipe at Callahan, which he sort of admitted could (and should) have been a tripping call: When the NHL annointed Crosby "The Next One" a few years ago, it was an obvious allusion to Wayne Gretzky, a hockey icon who "crossed over" into mainstream celebrity and whose role has not been filled in the decade since he left the ice. In a sign of the NHL's enduring wish for a major marquee star, the Next One title was given to Eric Lindros, who only flirted with it after being selected first overall in the 1991 entry draft.
Greztky's squeaky clean image included the way he played the game, mostly because his immense gifts did not include great size or strength. Crosby has never been shy about using his physical abilities and that's a pretty big part of hockey. It is unfair to Crosby for the NHL to equate him with Gretzky because he's not the same kind of player. His dismissals aside ("How many penalty minutes do I have this year, if I'm that dirty?," he said after the game -- he's got 15. "I mean, please. Show me all those dirty plays."), Crosby will cross the line on occasion, just as Alex Ovechkin does and most hockey players will. With few exceptions (Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Guy Lafleur), it's always been that way even with the game's top players. They fight for their space on the ice and sometimes those little battles get out of hand.
Our allegiances to one team or another cause us to react emotionally about certain guys and how they play the game. In one sense, that's as it should be. But to lose sight of the abundant skills that Crosby brings to the rink and to fixate on his indiscretions will shortchange your ability to appreciate a masterful player.
Kris Letang lets his hair down: He’s grown into his role as the Penguins' top offensive defenseman. His learning curve has been steep, but he’s consistently making smart plays both with and without the puck. On the plays that led to that winning goal last night. Kris Letang was all over the ice, trying to make something happen. In his own end, he made good decisions to stop rushes and skate the puck out of danger.
On The Hockey News website, Ken Campbell thinks Letang's name belongs among those to be considered for the Norris Trophy. It's a bit early for that, perhaps, but Letang has been impressive. Chris Botta of NHL Fanhouse thinks so too.
I spoke about Letang with Penguins GM Ray Shero last night at the Garden and the beaming look on Shero’s face was one you’d expect from a manager who let his former top defenseman, Sergei Gonchar, walk away over the summer as a free agent while knowing that he had a young rising star to replace him.
"You only worry that his hair doesn't get in his eyes while he's skating," Shero laughed.
Here's Letang being interviewed after the second period for those who are wondering what Shero meant: