Sidney Crosby was the first player on the Mellon Arena ice for practice yesterday, shooting pucks toward the net while the rest of the team began to emerge from the locker room. After the workout, he was one of the last off the ice.
It's not hard to find a correlation between his long session and one particular number among his statistics.
Goals are eluding Crosby, who has just two in eight games going into a home date tonight with Toronto.
"I want to score," Crosby said. "When the chances come, I like to take advantage of them. There haven't been too many, though. Teams are playing tight. That's just the way it is. I've got to find ways to get the puck in the net."
Crosby scored 39 goals among his 102 points as an NHL rookie, then had 36 goals among his league-leading 120 points last season for the Penguins. With this season roughly 10 percent completed, he is on pace for about 20 goals. Even for someone who is more playmaker than pure scorer, that's light goal production for a player of his caliber.
- Matchup: Penguins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, 7:38 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Vesa Toskala for Maple Leafs.
- Penguins: Beat Toronto, 6-4, Oct. 13, to improve to 4-0-1 vs. Maple Leafs since start of 2006-07. ... Are 4-2 in one-goal games. ... Evgeni Malkin has 14 points in five career games vs. Toronto.
- Maple Leafs: Mats Sundin was tied for league scoring lead with 17 points before last night. ... Nik Antropov was tied for league plus-minus lead at plus-10. ... Team goals-against average of 3.99 was second worst in league.
- Hidden stat: The Penguins have scored on the power play in every game.
For a couple reasons, Crosby's slump is not a drag on the team -- the biggest being that the Penguins carry a three-game winning streak into tonight's game and have won four of their past five.
"It's a lot easier to take when you're winning than when you're losing," Crosby said.
In addition, Crosby, the team captain, is finding a lot of other ways to help.
He leads the team in scoring with 10 points, thanks to eight assists that have carried him to a seven-game points streak. His skating is strong, his passing crisp, particularly on the power play -- he set up point man Ryan Whitney for the winning goal Saturday night in Washington, and his pass to Whitney helped set up Evgeni Malkin for the only goal Tuesday in a win against the New York Rangers.
"He's a great goal-scorer, but at the same time, his passing is so good that you don't really realize when he doesn't score a couple games because he's getting so many assists," Whitney said.
Crosby is coming back to help out defensively and to get things rolling the other way.
"Teams know what he's going to do -- they know he's going to move the puck -- and he does it anyway," Whitney said.
Crosby's faceoffs have improved enough -- he's winning 56.1 percent of them, up from 49.8 percent last season and 45.5 percent two seasons ago -- that coach Michel Therrien trusts him in any situation.
"Against Washington with 20-something seconds left, we sent him out there for a faceoff," Therrien said. "That's something the last couple years we might not have done."
So even while Crosby works to regain his scoring touch, the glowing level of the other parts of his game has blinded his teammates to his one weakness right now.
"He's creating chances for people every single shift," said Petr Sykora, a sometime linemate of Crosby's. "Scoring comes in streaks. Sometimes you don't score in five games, and sometimes you get five in five. In my mind, he's playing great. I'm sure he's going to score a lot of goals."
Therrien, looking for more offensive production from everyone, and not one to become attached to forward line combinations, shuffled his forwards yesterday.
Crosby skated with Evgeni Malkin and Mark Recchi. Jordan Staal centered the second line with Adam Hall and Ryan Malone. Gary Roberts and Sykora joined center Max Talbot on the third line. Center Erik Christensen skated with Jarkko Ruutu and Colby Armstrong.
Crosby is the only forward whose position -- first-line center -- hasn't changed.
It's not likely to, either, regardless of his goal total.
"We would never put pressure on Sidney [in terms of] how many goals he's going to score, how many points," Therrien said.
No one expects more of Crosby than Crosby, but he's putting his goal struggles in perspective.
"I don't want to make it a habit by any means, but it's something, hopefully, I'll come out of," he said. "There's no point in hanging your head."
When Crosby breaks out of the goal slump, it could boost a team that already is playing well.
"He's helping this team win without scoring goals," Whitney said. "Imagine what we'll be doing [when he starts scoring]."
There's no time like tonight against Toronto, which has allowed a league-high 42 goals.
After all, Crosby's two goals came Oct. 13 in a 6-4 win against the Maple Leafs.
Now 'n' then
Sidney Crosby's numbers through eight games this season and last:
T-19.....NHL points rank.....T-10
Game: Penguins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs.
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Mellon Arena.
TV: FSN Pittsburgh.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721. First Published October 25, 2007 4:00 AM