TORONTO -- Penguins center Maxime Talbot has made himself into a pretty fair hockey player, but nobody ever has mistaken him for Sidney Crosby.
Not until yesterday, anyway.
The morning skates preceding the Penguins' game against Toronto at the Air Canada Centre last night were open to the public -- fans were charged $6.50 each, with the money going to charity -- and the arena was at least half-full.
Unfortunately for those who showed up to watch the Penguins -- specifically, Crosby -- only four of their players went on the ice: Goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Dany Sabourin, right winger Mark Recchi and someone wearing Crosby's No. 87 game sweater.
Based on the crowd reaction, few, if any, of the fans realized immediately that it was Talbot wearing that sweater. (Most were understandably unaware that practice sweaters usually do not have numbers, let alone a captain's "C.")
Talbot absorbed the adulation for a bit -- "It was pretty loud, eh?" he said -- before leaving the ice and returning in a regular practice sweater. He subsequently (and not all that convincingly) blamed Fleury for persuading him to masquerade as Crosby.
"Fleury's a prankster, a jokester," Talbot said. "He gave me the idea. ... He pushed me. The pressure was on me."
Fleury stunned absolutely no one by professing his innocence.
Fleury was on the bench when the game began -- coach Michel Therrien caught many observers off-guard by starting Sabourin -- and, to the surprise of many, Talbot nearly showed up there, too.
He had missed the previous four games because of a high ankle sprain and, just a few days earlier, had suggested that he did not expect to be back until a Western road swing that begins in Edmonton Wednesday, but pronounced himself ready to play shortly after turning in his Crosby impersonation.
"A few days ago, it was still pretty bad," Talbot said. "But, lately, it's gotten better really quickly. And I have a kind of cast on my skate, so I can't really feel anything. So it feels great."
Tough place to play
Most fans and media members in this city seem to fall into one of two distinct camps: Those who believe Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr. (and/or coach Paul Maurice and any number of team executives) should be fired immediately, and those who don't see the point of waiting that long.
But while the future of people in management is the subject of non-stop discussion outside the Leafs' locker room, left winger Mark Bell said the players "don't even talk about it." Indeed, center Matt Stajan said, they make a concerted effort to not get caught up in the overwhelming attention every aspect of the team and its members receive.
"You have to be able to block it out," Stajan said.
"You're going to hear it in this city, no matter what. Even if you don't read the papers or listen to the radio, it gets back to you.
"When you're winning, this is the best place to play. And when you're losing, they're harder on you than anywhere else."
Penguins general manager Ray Shero formally told Hockey Canada that Jordan Staal will not be available to play in the world junior championships later this month. ... Maurice offered this tongue-in-cheek assessment of Crosby after watching tape of his two-goal performance in the Penguins' 4-1 victory against Dallas Friday: "I think he's going to make it, if he stays with it." ... Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar did not play for the second game in a row because of a sore groin. Recchi and Talbot also were scratched. ... Darcy Tucker, the Maple Leafs' feisty forward, hurt his shoulder when he lost his edge and slammed into the boards during the game-day skate. He was able to dress for the game, though, and Maurice said, "I think he was more angry that he was hurt."