Getting His Feet Wet

April 23, 2007
April 23, 2007

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April 23, 2007

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Getting His Feet Wet

In his first trip to the postseason the Penguins' Sidney Crosby got roughed up, wielded his magic stick and delivered a few lessons of his own

"People talk toyou a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preservedfrom childhood, is perhaps the best education."

This is an article from the April 23, 2007 issue Original Layout

--Alyosha, inFyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

The playoffeducation of a hockey prodigy began long before a puck was dropped shortlyafter 7 p.m. on April 11. Sidney Crosby, you see, has already won a StanleyCup. This one happened to have a bucket for a base and a bowl for a top and waswrapped in aluminum foil. On frostbitten Sundays in central Quebec on thebackyard rink of assistant coach Donald Dufresne, Crosby and his Rimouskijunior hockey teammates would gather for fierce games of two-on-two to decidetheir "Cup" champion. ¶ Of course, even before he arrived in juniors,Crosby had won the real Stanley Cup 1,000 times in the rollicking arena of hismind. "The way I imagined it, there was no jersey, no rink," Crosbysaid last Friday. "Just you and the Cup, over your head. That's how Ithought. Don't know how it works for other guys."

Crosby, 19, madehis formal playoff debut last week wearing a snappy white Pittsburgh Penguinssweater in a 20,000-seat arena, his team suffering a 6--3 embarrassment at thehands of the Ottawa Senators in the opener of the Eastern Conferencequarterfinals. Pittsburgh, with 13 players appearing in their first NHLpostseason game, wanted to test the water--in the locker room after the game,Crosby pantomimed dipping his big toe in a chilly pool--but wound up beinghauled into the deep end by the relentless Senators, who took a 2--0 lead inthe first seven minutes and physically abused the Penguins throughout. By thecount of Pittsburgh assistant G.M. Chuck Fletcher, Crosby was knocked down sixor seven times and fell once. "That's the worst playoff game you'll eversee Sidney Crosby play," Fletcher said. "But his bad games are stillO.K."

Crosby's roughnight was exacerbated 23 seconds into the third period, when his apparent goalwas disallowed after NHL hockey operations in Toronto determined he haddirected the puck into the net with his leg. Scoring on a power play with 49seconds left in the game was little consolation. "[The first game] wasaverage," said Crosby, whose stall in the visitors' dressing room for hisfirst playoff game was the same one Wayne Gretzky used in his last NHL game inCanada eight years ago. "And I don't accept being average.... I have to beone play ahead. And at times I wasn't. No doubt I have better in me."

With 120 pointsduring the regular season, Crosby became the first teenager to win a scoringchampionship in any of the four major North American professional leagues. Buthis hockey gift is so singular and his hunger for excellence so feral thatultimately he will be judged not by mere goals or assists but by how many Cupshis team wins and how quickly it wins them. Gretzky took five years beforeleading Edmonton to a Cup. Crosby's friend and landlord, Penguins chairmanMario Lemieux, needed seven seasons before taking Pittsburgh to the first oftwo championships. Without the layer upon layer of pressure that grinds theSenators--"At the end of the day, it's not like [the fans] are going toburn down Pittsburgh if we don't win this series," Fletcher said--the 2007playoffs might be a freebie for the young Penguins, especially because theyalready improved 47 points in the standings since last season. Except that ayoung man chasing hardware and history never gets a pass.

Crosby was right,of course. He did have better in him. That was evident in Game 2 last Saturday,when he assisted on a power-play goal, dug the puck out of the corner to helpcreate a second power-play goal and finally scored the winner in the Penguins'4--3 victory. To get the goal he used the shaft of his stick to redirect a passat the edge of the crease, an act that might have been passed off as mereserendipity had it not been Crosby waving that Reebok wand. He would have agoal and an assist on Sunday as the Senators took a two-games-to-one lead witha 4--2 win, but as he talked on Friday in an empty arena anteroom with only thedispiriting opener as tangible evidence, he had this to comfort him: Gretzky,in his first playoff with the Oilers, in 1980, was sent home in three games byPhiladelphia in a best-of-five. No matter what happened in this best-of-seven,Crosby would not disappear that quickly.

In a memorabletableau captured on the CBC telecast of Game 1, Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts andCrosby, from left to right, were leaning over the boards in front of thePenguins bench with bowed heads during a stoppage in the final minute of Game1. The 39-year-old Recchi, who has 508 career goals, had been repatriated byPittsburgh after being shipped off to win the Stanley Cup with Carolina lastspring; the 40-year-old Roberts, renowned for his professionalism, was acquiredfrom Florida at the trade deadline to provide leadership for a group so youngthat chicken fingers are on the menu at team meals. In 38 seasons combined,Recchi and Roberts had played in 249 playoff games before this one and wonthree Cups. As the camera lingered on "two old farts and a youngleader," as Recchi later characterized it, the bobbing head on the rightmade it clear who was offering the opinions.

"He was talkingto us," Roberts said. "And he's a talker. He likes to show you on theboard where he wants you to be. I've been fairly coachable in my career,"Roberts added with a smile. "Hopefully, that'll continue."

Like the keenstudent with the right answers, Crosby enjoys going to the blackboard--or inthis case the erasable whiteboard that the Penguins keep behind the bench.Crosby commandeered assistant coach Mike Yeo's board after the first shift ofGame 1, scribbling directional arrows as Roberts, his regular left wing,watched. Crosby had grown accustomed to diagramming plays during the seasonwhen he had been flanked by Evgeni Malkin, the superb Russian rookie whoselimited English makes him perfect for this sort of pedagogy, but even Robertsknows he benefits by chalk talks from a player this prescient and prepared.After playing against Crosby four times during the regular season, Ottawa hadtweaked its defensive coverage; Sid was merely taking note.

"At the end ofthe game I was basically telling them, 'I don't know about you guys, but it'sno fun to lose,'" Crosby said. "'[It's] over with, so let's just makesure we're ready for the rest of the series.'"

The Senators' planwas to force Crosby to dish the puck early and then have a forward--coach BryanMurray employed his No. 1 line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and DanielAlfredsson against Crosby in the first two games--keep an eye on him. But themore significant matchup against Crosby was Ottawa's shutdown defense pair,Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov. Over the series' first three games, thattwosome played against Crosby on 55 of his 60 even-strength shifts.

Phillips, the firstchoice in the 1996 draft, moonlighted as a winger early in his career beforefinally establishing himself as a steady defenseman; Volchenkov, whose father,Alexei, was a defenseman on the famous Soviet Red Army teams of the mid-1970s,has mastered the art of blocking shots but is flummoxed by English. ("Itold him, at this stage, it'll probably be easier if I learn Russian,"Phillips says.) Volchenkov finished the season with 273 blocked shots (45 morethan No. 2 Jason Smith of Edmonton) and 205 hits (12th most in the NHL), givinghim a league-leading 478 on the NHL's Blood and Guts Index. His torso is like apainted desert sunrise, purples yielding to yellows that mingle with faintreddish hues. Says Phillips, "He bruises really nicely. He has a lot ofstats he's able to show off all over his body." Each signed a new contractbefore the playoffs--$14 million for four years for Phillips, $7.5 million forthree seasons for Volchenkov--and the way they marked Crosby, you would havethought the pair had picked him up at the hotel in the morning. Phillipsknocked Crosby down twice on one shift in Game 1. At the end of the firstperiod in Game 2, he put his stick up to Crosby's clavicle, snapping thecenter's head back; then Crosby had to outmuscle a clinging Volchenkov for thepuck to help set up a Roberts power play goal in that game. In Game 3 Phillipswrestled Crosby to the ice, prompting Malkin to go after Phillips inretaliation.

"They make ittough on [Crosby]," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "But goodplayers find a way to hurt the other team."

The second game ofthe series was scheduled for 3 p.m. EST--Eastern Sidney Time. In Canada thattime slot was an insult. There's a 54-year tradition of Hockey Night in Canada,not Hockey Afternoon in Canada. If this weren't a federal case, at least it wasa provincial case; Nova Scotia's House of Assembly passed a resolutionprotesting the start time. Alas, NBC wanted Crosby for its national telecast.Given a choice between CBC, the state-supported network that recently agreed topay $600 million for NHL rights for six more seasons starting in 2008--09, orsecond-year partner NBC, which pays zero up front, the NHL accommodated theU.S. network. If Crosby is going to proselytize for hockey, it does no goodhaving him preach to the Canadian choir.

Not that everyoneis on the same page of the hymnal. He was booed almost politely in Game 1. Butafter the Ottawa Citizen ran a front-page column on Friday with a picture ofCrosby and a headline that read don't boo this boy--"What is this, thePittsburgh Citizen?" one caller to radio station Team 1200 demanded--it wasopen-throat season on Crosby at the start of Game 2. Ottawa took a 2--1 leadafter two periods and appeared ready to break its winless streak of six matchesafter Game 1 victories, but Therrien moved Malkin and Recchi to Crosby's linein the third period, and that trio shut up everyone with Crosby's winner at11:44. "A big goal," Crosby agreed, "but the ones in Dufresne'sbackyard were for the Cup. This was just Game 2."

In the education ofa hockey prodigy, school is still in session.


Great Shots

Daily picture galleries of NHL playoff action as well asexpert analysis and a postseason blog.


Ultimately Crosby will be judged not by goals or assistsbut by HOW MANY CUPS HIS TEAM WINS and how quickly it wins them.
PHOTOLou CapozzolaRIGHT ON TARGET The physical Senators--in this case center Mike Fisher (12)--zeroed in on Crosby.PHOTOLou CapozzolaGETTING CREATIVE With some nifty stickwork, Crosby had a hand in five of Pittsburgh's nine goals through Game 3.