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Alone At the Top

May 10, 2010
May 10, 2010

Table of Contents
May 10, 2010

LEADING OFF
GOLF PLUS
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
KENTUCKY DERBY
NHL PLAYOFFS
BASEBALL
ROETHLISBERGER
Departments

Alone At the Top

In the last year, Sidney Crosby has won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal and surpassed his biggest rival. But at 22, the world's best player is just getting started

This is an article from the May 10, 2010 issue

Sidney Crosby loves to fish. Almost every summer evening he drops a line into Grand Lake, in a sylvan setting 40 minutes from his boyhood home in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. Crosby enjoys the solitude as much as the fishing, which is hardly surprising for a Canadian idol. In his country, hockey heroes are caught but never released. The bass and pickerel are among the few creatures north of the 49th parallel that don't have the faintest idea who he is.

"He can be out there for hours," says his father, Troy Crosby, "and not catch a thing." The fishing on the lake is spotty in summer. If Sidney wants to land, say, a big striper, he should be out on the lake or casting off his dock right now. But as is his custom, he is professionally engaged at the moment. When they reach Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against Montreal on Thursday, the Penguins, tied with the Canadiens at a game apiece after a 3--1 loss at home on Sunday, will play their 300th match of the past three seasons. This is shaping up to be another extended Pittsburgh spring. Like a vain man's 39th birthday, the conference final is an annual event for the Penguins.

The primary reason for this, of course, is Crosby. Since he and Alexander Ovechkin entered the NHL together in 2005--06, the question has been: Who's better, Sid or Ovie? The answer, until further notice, arrived last week when Crosby took a commanding lead in playoff scoring, while Ovechkin failed to carry Washington past the upstart Canadiens. (The astonishing loss by the Presidents' Trophy winners—who frittered away a 3--1 series lead—was due not to a failure of will by Ovechkin but to a lack of imagination: Crosby's grand rival and measuring stick repeatedly scooted into the offensive zone, then swerved into the middle to look for a shot. He never seemed to consider driving wide to generate offense.)

While the Capitals sorted through the day-after wreckage last Thursday, Crosby joined teammates Jay McKee, Jordan Staal and Max Talbot for a postpractice round of miniature golf. "Who won?" Talbot repeats. "Sid." He pauses. "Obviously."

"Best player in the world? Yeah," Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges said of Crosby on the eve of the series, and he wasn't referring to putt-putt golf. "[Crosby and Ovechkin] are both really good, but Crosby's better at using the players around him. Great vision. Not only can he score, like he proved this year"—his 51 goals tied for the NHL regular-season lead—"but he passes the puck better than anybody. He makes plays: behind his back, drop passes. You sit in the stands, and you don't even see the possibilities. You wonder how he sees them. As a defenseman you try to force him to make plays he doesn't want to make. If you allow him to make the plays he wants, he'll burn you."

The Canadiens were the Crosby family team. Montreal drafted Troy, a goaltender, in the 12th round in 1984. Sidney ... well, he adored the bleu, blanc et rouge like so many other kids in the Maritime Provinces. In his bedroom hung not only a poster of Mario Lemieux but also one of Canadiens captain Kirk Muller. ("When my daughters heard that," says Muller, now a Montreal assistant coach, "it raised their opinion of Dad.") Sidney's room was also decorated with Canadiens-themed wallpaper.

The only thing that has changed is that now Crosby wallpapers Canadiens. Fifteen minutes into Game 1 last Friday he ran over Gorges, who 24 hours earlier had been worried about being burned when he should have been concerned about being flattened. This was a fair fight: Crosby, 5'11" and 200 pounds, is two inches shorter but only two pounds lighter than Gorges.

And so Crosby said an emphatic hello to the second round. During Pittsburgh's systematic 6--3 win he would pickpocket Montreal center Scott Gomez along the boards and set up Kris Letang for a goal; make a surgical cross-seam pass to Alex Goligoski for another of Pittsburgh's four power-play scores; and engage in an unpenalized cross-checking duel with former Penguin Hal Gill, a big galoot of a defenseman who has eight inches and 50 pounds on him. Crosby also suffered a nasty gash on his chin, courtesy of an inadvertent high stick from Dominic Moore in the second period, but given some fancy needlepoint and the benefit of two television timeouts, he missed no more than five minutes on the game clock. "Give some credit to [the doctors]," said Crosby, whose wound, amid tufts of a struggling playoff beard, only slightly compromised the boyishness of his boy-band mug. "I think there were two of them."

The summary: three hits, one blocked shot, two assists and an unspecified number of stitches in 21:08. (When pressed for the number of sutures, Crosby said he had no idea. Hockey players always say that.) Although he was held without a point in Game 2, he ended the weekend with a playoff average of 2.0 points per game. If the Penguins go deep in four series and Crosby maintains a similar pace, he could break Wayne Gretzky's playoff record of 47 points, set in the giddy 1984--85 season, in which the goals-per-game season average was 7.77 compared with the slender 5.53 of 2009--10.

Crosby's points are less achievements than signposts en route to perhaps another championship. Last June he became the youngest captain of a Cup winner. Now he can win his second trophy before the age of 23. (Gretzky was 24 when he won the second of his four Cups.) Like a classic type A personality Crosby, who has also won an MVP and a scoring title, keeps scratching off items on his virtual to-do list.

Shoot more. Check. Crosby, who had not taken more than 250 shots in a season since his rookie year, took 298 this season, fifth in the NHL. The extra shots translated into a goal bonanza, a leap from a previous best of 39. "Scoring 50 was a goal of mine, for sure, but that wasn't about me," Crosby says. "I thought last year as the season went on that if I had shot a little more, it might have opened things up [for teammates]."

Improve on face-offs. Yep, did that. Crosby, who had a career face-off percentage of 49.6 before 2009--10, won 55.9% of his draws this season, 11th best in the league. Through Sunday his 57.0 playoff face-off percentage ranked sixth.

Win an Olympic gold medal. Big check there. Of course to do it, he had to score the overtime winner against the U.S. in Vancouver.

Conn Smythe Trophy? "I don't want to get too specific, but the Conn Smythe [for playoff MVP] usually goes to a member of the winning team," Crosby says. "So I'd like to be in that position."

"He's like Michael Jordan," Penguins fourth-liner Craig Adams says. "I don't know how many years it was into Jordan's career, but one day he decides he wants to play defense and goes out and wins the NBA's best defensive player award. When Sid puts his mind to it and works at something, he can do it. People were waiting for him to win his first Cup. Then there was the pressure to win the Olympics at home, and he scores the goal. Maybe some of the pressure's off now, but I'm not worried about him taking a breather."

"If the Olympics changed him at all, it relaxed him," Bill Guerin, his right wing, says. "Some guys in sports carry the pressure of leading a really good team. Some carry the weight of a whole city. He had the weight of a country on his back. The gold was a relief. But with Sid it's like, O.K., I did it; now let's move on."

Crosby's Olympics-winning goal already ranks among the greatest in the 135-year history of the sport, but after a country of 34 million hockey coaches exhaled, "Sidney came back, shook everyone's hand, accepted congratulations and was ready for the next game," Pittsburgh assistant coach Tony Granato says. He did not miss a Penguins match. He did not even blow off an optional practice. (Ovechkin, centerpiece of the Russian team that was humiliated by Canada in the Olympic quarterfinals 7--3, skipped the Capitals' optional skate on the morning of Game 7 against Montreal. Just sayin'.)

The toll of Being Sidney Crosby was apparent after the Olympic fortnight—in the first 13 games after Vancouver he scored only three goals and endured a goalless streak of seven matches—but he scored six in Pittsburgh's final seven games before embarking on a playoff series that gilded his reputation. In a six-game dismissal of Ottawa in the first round he had five goals, nine assists and two fistfuls of YouTube moments, although Crosby thinks he did his best work—eight goals and five assists—in the seven-game win over the Capitals in the 2009 conference semis. (Guerin: "Probably. He was really focused there. Wrapped up." Because he was facing Ovechkin? "Absolutely.") Yet there were grace notes in the Senators series that previously had not been apparent. In Game 2 Crosby sprawled to sweep the puck off the goal line and bail out goalie Marc-André Fleury. (Win Norris Trophy. Check.) And he dazed Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson with a seismic hit in Game 3. (Morph into big-hitting Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens. Check.)

But, as in most great action movies, the highlight was the chase scene. This one lasted 13 seconds in real time, but it will run on Crosby top 10 reels for eternity. While being pursued by Jason Spezza behind the net in the third period of Game 2, Crosby wheeled and doubled back—twice—while at one point fighting off the Senators' center with one arm and controlling the puck with one hand on his stick. The only thing missing was a fast-forward button and that zippy music from the old Benny Hill Show. The pursuit finally ended when, from his knees at the right face-off circle, Crosby fed Letang at the point for the winning power-play goal. "The first couple of years I was always like, Wow! when I saw him do something like that," Talbot says. "Now it's just, Good job, Sid. That play was [the equivalent] of me chipping the puck [out of the zone]. Nice chip, Max. For him it's, Nice dipsy, dipsy, dipsy doodle, Sid."

Crosby has the turning radius of a Mini Cooper because of a skating technique known as Ten and Two. He has the uncommon ability to skate with his left foot pointing to 10 o'clock and his right skate pointing to 2, a vaguely Chaplinesque position that enhances mobility in tight quarters. "Sid actually went about a quarter to three on that one," says former NHL player Phil Bourque, the Penguins' radio analyst. "The advantage with Ten and Two is you don't have to stop. You can roll off guys. While most guys glide, Sid's lower-body strength is such that he can actually propel himself, push off when his feet are open. He's almost a freak of nature."

After the behind-the-net romp with Spezza, Penguins general manager Ray Shero asked Lemieux, the team's co-owner, "You ever do that with your feet?"

Lemieux replied, "Are you kidding me? With my hips? Nowhere close."

While Gretzky made the fallow area behind the goal his office—two feet one way, two feet the other, banking pucks to himself off the back of the net, finding open sticks—Crosby employs Ten and Two to make that space a rec room, spinning offense out of quick bursts of skating.

The Stanley Cup, Olympic gold, now the separation from Ovechkin ... everything has gone Crosby's way over the past 12 months. But, he says, "I don't work any less hard because we won last year. The results aren't guaranteed. At times you have to catch yourself and realize it's not always going to be like that. You've still got stuff to learn."

In Crosby's compact world, there are always bigger fish to fry.

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"If the Olympics changed him at all, it relaxed him," says Guerin. "He had the weight of a country on his back."
PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHOLOOK OF A WINNER With two assists in the Pens' 6--3 win over Montreal in Game 1, Crosby led the playoffs with 16 points through Sunday.TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by DAVID E. KLUTHOOPERATING ROOM Crosby's strength and agility allow him to camp out behind the net and create chances for teammates.