Penguins notebook: Crosby dodges talking about himself as top player

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TORONTO -- Sidney Crosby clearly isn't interested in proclaiming himself to be the world's finest hockey player.

"It's always kind of a debatable thing," Crosby said before the game Thursday night against Toronto at the Air Canada Centre. "Everyone has their own opinion, so I try to not get caught up in who thinks what.

"I try to do my best out there and, if that kind of fits into that category, then that's obviously a great compliment. But that's not something I think is up to me to gauge."

Asked to identify players worthy of consideration for that distinction, Crosby cited Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos.

"The way he's playing right now, and the way he's played over the last few years, it's hard to argue anyone has really been as consistent as him and produced as much as him," Crosby said.

Such lavish praise hardly is hardly out of line, but it's worth noting that the opposing coaches Thursday night think pretty highly of Crosby, as well.

"The one thing that separates him from a lot of people is the tenacity with which he approaches the game," Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "You watch him do the little things.

"It starts with the faceoffs and how dogged he is. How strong he is down low, in the corners.

"People look at him as small in stature, but he's a very powerful skater and he has uncanny ability to go into the corner with bigger men and come out with the puck, more often than not."

Crosby is the NHL's leading scorer, with 12 goals and 33 assists before the Toronto game, and was its second most-active faceoff man, handling 661 draws through the first 27 games. He won 365 of those, a success rate of 55.2 percent.

He entered the Maple Leafs game averaging 21 minutes and 36 seconds of ice time, fourth most among NHL forwards, and has been a been a factor in all three zones, game-in and game-out, since the earliest days of the season.

"He's playing really good, responsible hockey, and I think he's leading the team that way," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

"The consistency with which he plays every night is the amazing thing to me."

Limits to scouting

The Penguins enter every game with a detailed scouting report on their opponent, including the strengths and soft spots of its goalies.

That information is shared with players, but Bylsma said there are perils in putting too much emphasis on it.

"If you talk to James Neal, sometimes if you tell him to shoot in a certain area, he'll come back to the bench and say, 'I heard the [scouting report] in my brain and I didn't shoot the puck,' " Bylsma said.

"We'll certainly pay attention to [the information] and areas of things we think we can look at, but sometimes it's better to let James Neal just wire it."

Realignment clears last hurdle

The NHL Board of Governors, as expected, approved the league's realignment plan, which will take effect next season.

The Penguins will be in one of two eight-team divisions in the Eastern Conference, along with Philadelphia, Washington, the New York Rangers, the New York Islanders, New Jersey, Columbus and Carolina.

In the regular season, teams in the Penguins' division will play five games each against two division opponents and four each against the other five, as well as three against every team in the other Eastern division and two against each Western club.

In the first round of playoffs, the top two division winners will face the wild-card clubs, while the second- and third-place clubs in each division will meet.

Tip-ins

Bylsma said he did not know whether center Evgeni Malkin, who missed his third game in a row because of an unspecified injury, skated Thursday or whether he can be ruled out of home games against the New York Rangers and Boston this weekend. ... In addition to Malkin, the Penguins scratched defensemen Mark Eaton and Robert Bortuzzo.

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