PITTSBURGH -- The Penguins' practice on Tuesday ended with one of those shootout contests that HBO featured last year in its 24/7 series. Each skater takes shots on goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson, who take the opportunity to make flashy saves by, say, doing push-ups or bench-pressing their sticks as a shooter approaches. Last man standing this day would be the "Magazine Boy" responsible for picking up periodicals for the players' lounge.
After a few rounds, the number of skaters left who hadn't scored on Fleury or Johnson began to dwindle, but Sidney Crosby was still out there. Some 14 hours after a game in which it seemed like he'd score on every shift, the Penguins superstar center couldn't find the back of the net.
Crosby skated in on Fleury, shot wide; then tried stickhandling in only to have the puck poked away. His teammates, meanwhile, happened to have more success. And before long, it was just Crosby left alone at center ice. He had one shot left.
Skating in, he snapped a low shot that smacked into Fleury's pad. The goalie let out a hearty laugh and announced: "Welcome back!"
Fleury insisted later that the contest wasn't rigged. That didn't stop Crosby from arguing that it wasn't fair, that Evgeni Malkin had actually gone ahead of him earlier and so he should have another shot. Crosby spiritedly made his case to coaches and teammates, who all listened politely while smiling. When Fleury finally agreed to go back into the net to give Crosby one more chance, the 24-year-old captain just sighed.
"No, see, I don't even want to anymore," he said.
It doesn't matter the stakes. Clearly, Sidney Crosby just doesn't take well to losing.
Considering the display the Penguins staged on Monday night while handily routing the Islanders, 5-0, in Crosby's first game since Jan. 5, the captain may not have to deal with losing all that much. Of course, it's been just one day, and concluding that the Penguins will win the Stanley Cup after one 60-minute contest against the second-worst team in the league (not to mention a goalie fresh out of the minors) would be a bit premature. But now, with a full and healthy lineup, at least, Pittsburgh has every tool at its disposal.
Monday night's game was just the third since May 2010 for which the Penguins' top three centers -- Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal -- all dressed. Still, in the other 102 they did not, Pittsburgh managed to go 60-31-11.
"I think we know how deep our team is and how good of a team we have," defenseman Paul Martin says. "Last year, we were successful without our big two [Crosby and Malkin].... Now adding them back into the lineup, we have to be careful not to expect that they're going to do that every night.... But yeah, in the back of our minds, there's that thought that we can be that good, but we still have to put in the work and the time."
Indeed, every night won't be like Monday against New York, and Crosby remarked that he was probably fueled by adrenaline. He woke up this morning a bit sore and tired. But as for ill effects with regard to his concussions, he said he felt none. His play on the ice certainly showed no signs of mental wear. His vision, timing, tracking all seemed on par with the old Crosby. But expect the Penguins to monitor their star's minutes and progress. With Pittsburgh playing three games over the next four nights, the coming days may be more taxing -- physically and mentally.
But the depth the Penguins boast will make things easier in the short run. And in the long run, while indeed premature to anoint them the NHL's team to beat, it's hard to deny that Pittsburgh has much to offer offensively. With Crosby back and healthy, the ripple effect touches just about every position on the team. It helps ease the pressure on defensemen like Kris Letang, who scored six goals and 36 points in the first half of last season (with Crosby in) before scoring just 30 points in the subsequent 59 games without him.
Crosby's presence activates the defense, and the attention he demands creates space for teammates, as it did on Pittsburgh's second goal on Monday night: defenseman Brooks Orpik's blast from the point. With Crosby, Malkin and Staal each healthy and effective, the Penguins can create as many mismatches as they so desire.
But again, until the Penguins face a top-notch opponent, it's all just theoretical. In the East, only Boston and perhaps Philadelphia with their formidable defense corps could prove the theory wrong. And that first test will come in two weeks when Pittsburgh faces the Bruins and Flyers back-to-back.