The questions come in waves. In Toronto recently, reporters lined up single file at Sidney Crosby's locker stall hoping to get a chance to ask him individually about it.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma regularly fields the same questions about his captain and star center.
Neither is offering a definitive opinion as to whether Crosby has reached, or even surpassed, the incredible level at which he was playing before he got hurt in January 2011.
But Crosby knows this much: Being grilled about that, even over and over, is very much preferable to the constant questions he faced about headaches, neck trouble, concussion symptoms and even the lockout while he was excluded from games over most of a two-year period before the delayed start of this season.
"Way better," he said, then grinned. "Way better."
Washington Capitals vs. Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
- TV, Radio:
Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders:
Braden Holtby for Capitals; Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins.
Have allowed just five goals over past five games. ... Have killed off 11 of opponents' past 12 power plays. ... Chris Kunitz has points in six of past seven home games (6 goals, 10 points).
Had just seven goals in five games before 5-3 win Sunday against Buffalo. ... Penalty-killing, 76.2 percent, among NHL's worst. ... Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro have scored 17 of team's 23 power-play goals.
- Hidden stat:
Penguins are 20-2 when scoring three or more goals; Washington is 12-2.
The comparison between the first 30 games of this lockout-shortened 48-game season and the run Crosby had before he got injured in the 2011 Winter Classic seems valid.
Over the first three months of 2010-11, Crosby established himself as the leading candidate for the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer and the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He had 66 points in 41 games, including a 25-game points streak with 26 goals, 50 points. Embedded in that streak were 12 Penguins wins in a row.
This season, Crosby is making another run at the Ross and Hart. Through Sunday, he led the NHL with 48 points in 30 games.
The Penguins carry a nine-game winning streak into a date tonight against the Washington Capitals at Consol Energy Center. Such a matchup used to mean comparisons between Crosby and Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin. Now there's hardly anyone besides Crosby in the conversation about the top hockey player in the world.
Before Monday, the closest competition in terms of points came from Tampa Bay -- center Steven Stamkos had 38, winger Martin St. Louis, 37 -- and Crosby's own locker room. Linemate Chris Kunitz ranked second in the NHL with 40 points.
Crosby and Bylsma have fairly standard answers for the question of which Crosby is better -- the pre-injury 2010-11 version, or Crosby today?
Bylsma turns the conversation toward looking beyond the highlights, to seeing the consistency with which Crosby does so many high-level things in games and even in practice.
"That's the amazing part," Bylsma said as recently as Sunday. He didn't say it again Monday because the Penguins canceled practice and had no media availability.
Crosby, 25, simply tells people that he feels good and is comfortable with his game.
Because of a concussion and neck injury and their recurring symptoms, Crosby played in just 28 games -- six of them in the playoffs -- between Jan. 6, 2011 and Jan. 19, 2012. He returned for good March 15, 2012, but was shut out of the game with the rest of the NHL players the first three months of this season because of the work stoppage.
Crosby figures however well he's playing, it has at least something to do with his renewed enjoyment.
"It's fun," he said. "That's what you miss -- just being around the team, competing, that whole thing. When you're hurt, you're kind of on your own with rehab and stuff like that.
"When you go through [injuries] for a year and a half and have to answer questions about it and you don't really have answers, it weighs on you a bit. But I think that if anything, I've learned from it and I probably appreciate things more than I ever have."
Sunday, for example, Crosby devoted the morning immersed in that day's upcoming game against Boston and its hulking defenseman, Zdeno Chara.
"It's good when you're focused on preparing, getting ready for who you're playing against," Crosby said. "I was thinking about playing against Chara, that matchup, not if I'm symptom-free or should I skate or not skate."
In that game, a 2-1 win, Crosby flashed his brilliance in the first period when he carried the puck over the blue line and, one on two, outmaneuvered Chara and Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk as he flew down the slot. Goaltender Tuukka Rask got his right pad out to stop Crosby's shot, but Crosby came back quickly to get the game's first goal, produced by strong forechecking by his line.
In his half-season in 2010-11, Crosby averaged 1.6 points a game, 2.0 on his scoring streak. This season, he is again averaging 1.6 points a game. He also is winning 54.5 percent of his faceoffs (55.6 in 2010-11), is second in the league in plus-minus at plus-21 (plus-20 in 2010-11), is scoring on 13 percent of his shots (19.9 percent in 2010-11) and is averaging 21 minutes, 38 seconds of ice time (21:55 in 2010-11).
One difference that stands out a bit is in shooting. Crosby averaged 3.9 shots a game in 2010-11. That's down to 3.3 now.
"He's still shooting the thing," Bylsma said. "Maybe a few less shots, but it's not indicative of not playing well because his passing ability is uncanny."
Thursday, for example, he set up linemate Pascal Dupuis for a goal with a blind backhand pass.
Crosby cites two reasons for shooting a little less.
Because he finds that teams are collapsing four or five skaters in front of their goalie and blocking shots a lot more than even two seasons ago, he is "trying to go around them" rather than shooting into traffic.
On a more basic level, Crosby has a pass-first mentality despite the fact that he and Stamkos shared the NHL goal-scoring title with 51 in 2009-10.
"It's not something where naturally I would say I'm a shooter," Crosby said. "I have to train myself to get to the net and then make a play, but sometimes I get caught looking for a play.
"But I think I'm generating chances. As a line, if we're generating chances, we're going to produce."
And they have, thanks in large part to Crosby. After all, Crosby is leading the league with 35 assists.
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: email@example.com and Twitter: @pgshelly. First Published March 19, 2013 4:00 AM