Gee, the NHL's Steven Stamkos Era ended sort of suddenly, didn't it?
Two weeks ago, Stamkos was the NHL's darling, more a tsunami than merely the wave of the future. He was ripping pucks past goalies, obliging opponents to tweak their penalty-killing systems, sparking breathy debates about not if he could score 50-plus goals for a second straight season, but whether he would join Maurice Richard, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull in scoring 50 goals in 50 games. Although he wasn't even the most important player on the Tampa Bay Lightning -- that, unquestionably, is Martin St. Louis -- Stamkos, who now has a modest six-game goal drought, seemed to be the fulcrum of the NHL...for about a half hour.
FARBER:Stamkos has the hottest stick in hockey
With the hyperventilating done, it's worth repeating an opinion offered last spring in the pages of SI magazine: this is Sidney Crosby's world and the rest of us are simply paying rent.
In case you haven't noticed, the Pittsburgh Penguins -- currently without the injured Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal -- have hopped on Crosby's back to rip off 10 straight wins. Their captain leads the NHL with 48 points, split evenly between goals and assists. He has six goals in his past three games, nine in his past five, and is on a point streak of 16 games. After crashing through the 40-goal barrier by tying Stamkos for the NHL lead with 51 last season, Crosby could join Alex Ovechkin as the only players in this decade to score at least 60 in a season.
That is the good news for Crosby. The bad news is that because his scoring jag began in November, the month in which many players grew mustaches in support of prostate cancer awareness, Crosby will, for the present, keep the facial fuzz that is about as thin as the New York Islanders defense.
Of course, numbers have always been the least intriguing things about Crosby. They are the by-products of everything he does. The process is far more complex and compelling. He is a player of increment, taking small steps that add up to something greater. He burnishes every element of his game until it shines brightly, expanding his horizons and, by extension, the league that depends on him more than any player since Wayne Gretzky.
Behold the new, improved and pain-free (virtually no hip and groin issues) Sidney Crosby of 2010-11:
The shot. He willed himself into becoming a scorer during the 2009 playoffs -- the trend carried into last season -- by going to the prime areas near the net. Now he has expanded that base, actually firing more frequently from 15 feet or so with a shot that is improving exponentially. With defenders backing off for fear of being undressed one-on-one, Crosby has developed what, in another sport, might be described as a mid-range game. Take that, LeBron.
The deflection. Crosby actually has altered his technique. Instead of stopping pucks and then trying to poke them past goalies, he has practiced angling his stick and tipping them, an additional arrow in his offensive quiver.
The defense. In the absence of Staal, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has often played strength-on-strength, matching Crosby and usual wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis -- not quite Bossy and Clark Gillies, are they? -- against other teams' best lines. Before facing Toronto on Wednesday night, Crosby, who had 33 points in 21 career games against the Maple Leafs, was a commendable plus-12.
The faceoff. Now in his sixth season, Crosby has been steadily improving since his rookie year when he was utterly overmatched at the dot. He is as dependable on draws as any high-end skill player -- we're excluding specialists such as Vancouver's Manny Malhotra here -- except, perhaps, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.
You can make a reasonable case that Toews had every bit as good a calendar 2010 as Crosby. Toews led his team to a long-awaited Stanley Cup, won the Conn Smythe Trophy and was named the outstanding forward of the Winter Olympics -- as impressive a hat trick as one can imagine. He had a better Olympic tournament than his more renowned Canadian teammate Crosby, although there was the not insignificant matter of Crosby's gold-medal-winning goal. Crosby will finish the year with superior statistics, but, shockingly, his Penguins lost a second-round Game 7 on home ice to Montreal last spring. Anyway, it adds up to a legitimate debate on Crosby vs. Toews in 2010.
You can't do the same, at least at the moment, with Crosby and Ovechkin.
Not that I didn't try in a Vancouver bar on the night of Feb. 28 after filing an SI story on Canada's overtime win over Team USA. A friend asked me to describe the difference between the NHL's twin pillars. Imperfectly, I put it this way: If you were a Martian watching your first hockey game -- forgive the dumb analogy, it was late -- you would look at Ovechkin and immediately recognize that he was great. With Crosby, his greatness is less conspicuous, more subtle and textured.
In the almost nine months since, Crosby has surged ahead of the dandy left winger who entered the NHL at the same time -- 2005-06 -- but is 23 months older. Crosby, who through Monday had played 400 regular season games, 25 fewer than Ovechkin, has increased his slim points per game lead over his rival -- 1.39 to 1.33 -- but it is his ability and willingness to play both ends of the ice that separates the two.
The facts won't get in the way of a good story line, of course. The NHL has Crosby and Ovechkin joined at the hip this season. They are the centerpieces of the showcase Winter Classic outdoor game in Pittsburgh on Jan. 1. (Does it say something that the NHL's most hyped regular season game looks less like an NHL game than any of the other 1,229? Discuss among yourselves.) The pair will also, presumably, be the protagonists of the 24/7 HBO series about the Penguins and Capitals that starts airing on Dec. 15. The guess is that Crosby and Ovechkin will be portrayed as equals in addition to rivals, but then, to borrow from Orwell, right now one player is more equal than the other.
HACKEL:Haters are missing Crosby's greatness
Like "Tougher emission standards coming" and "Pope prays for peace," certain stories are hardy perennials. The NHL's favorite is "Coach (insert name here) is on the hot seat." The formula is tired, but nothing seems to engage the public quite like speculative stories about a coach who might, or might not, lose his job.
There is a leaflet full of tales in which a coaching change has spurred a team. Pittsburgh sacked Michel Therrien after a grim loss in Toronto in February 2009 and went on to win the Stanley Cup under Bylsma. The New Jersey Devils won the Cup once that way with an eleventh hour firing that put Larry Robinson behind the bench in 2000.
Of course, Devils president Lou Lamoriello also fired Claude Julien in the wee hours of the 2006-07 season, and that didn't work out so well. (After Lamoriello himself, Brent Sutter, Jacques Lemaire and now a scuffling John MacLean, New Jersey still seems to be searching for the right coach.) Last month, the Islanders fired Scott Gordon, who was an assistant on Ron Wilson's Team USA staff in Vancouver. (Olympic GM Brian Burke lauded Gordon as "a great young coach...smart and tough.") If there has been a marked improvement on Long Island, it is invisible to the naked eye. Anyway, like most things in life, firing a coach might work or it might not. You just don't know.
All of which brings us to Wilson, who supposedly had "lost" the Maple Leafs dressing room. Maybe he has, but he can "find" the room by walking down the stairs at Gate 2-½ of the Air Canada Center and making a left. Toronto beat Julien's solid Boston Bruins in a shootout on Saturday. Two nights later, despite trailing the Capitals by three goals in the third period in Washington, the Leafs pounced on some mistakes and again won in a shootout. These were not the kind of efforts that teams give when they are looking to have their coach fired.
Maybe Wilson is not the right coach for Toronto, which looks sort of threadbare when captain Dion Phaneuf is out of the lineup. Burke, who bears responsibility for the mishmash of players that Wilson is coaching, will make that decision at a later date. But two character wins over elite teams should tamp down the noise for a while.