NHL Playoffs: Penguins' postseason brings out best in Crosby



Sidney Crosby's harshest critic through junior hockey and his rookie year was Don Cherry, who stirs the pot with his pointed opinions on Hockey Night in Canada.

Accordingly, eyebrows were raised before a Round 2 matchup between the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals. The mainstay of Coach's Corner declared that, if he had to choose, he would take Crosby.

"He's the best all-around player in the NHL," Cherry repeated in a phone interview. "I like Ovechkin. He's exciting. The wild bull of the Pampas. And he was everybody's darling. But I said this before this series that Crosby wins draws now, he hits, he blocks shots, he plays down low, he's dropped the gloves twice. He's a complete player. Someone who just scores goals is like a [designated hitter] in baseball. But a guy like Roberto Clemente, who could run, hit and throw, that's a ballplayer."

Such an insight may not assuage all the ire that Pittsburgh hockey fans have toward Cherry, whose opinions can be as loud as his wardrobe. And rather than being a case of hopping on the bandwagon, it is more a statement of the obvious than it is a conversion of a critic.

"I never said he couldn't play hockey. I know the Pittsburgh people got mad at me when I said the emperor had no clothes, but I just didn't like the way he was acting with all that yapping," Cherry said. "He's got class now."

For most hockey insiders, Crosby long ago passed all the tests about coming up big in big situations even if a championship is still required to complete the picture.

The kid who broke Mario Lemieux's franchise record for points as a rookie led his team to the Stanley Cup final a year ago. Although the Penguins came up two games short, Crosby shared the playoff scoring lead with Conn Smythe Award winner Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings.

If Crosby's actions speak louder than words, he has a knack for opening eyes and shutting mouths.

In the opening round against the Flyers, he scored the first goal of the series and the last -- an empty-netter on Philadelphia ice that silenced those who had rained down taunts, insults and epithets.

In the second round against the Capitals, he scored the first goal of the series and the last -- quieting a Washington crowd and winning laurels as Game 7's No. 1 star.

Earlier in the season, Alexander Semin questioned what was so special about Crosby. After the Capitals were eliminated, goaltender Simeon Varlamov offered an answer.

"The way Crosby played in this series," he said through an interpreter, "they should build a monument to him."

The bar is set so high for Crosby that he somehow had a quiet season despite scoring 103 points and finishing behind teammate Evgeni Malkin and Ovechkin in the scoring race. Of the three, Crosby is the only one left out of the voting for league MVP.

But consider an overtime win in the Capitals series when Crosby won a crucial faceoff to get the puck to Mark Eaton, who fed Kris Letang for the winning goal.

"Sid deserves all the credit. He won the draw so cleanly. He's such a complete player. He can do it all. He's much more than just a goal scorer," Eaton said. "When you see it everyday, you kind of take it for granted. But we know how special he is."

Crosby's game has more nuances, so you almost have to watch him on a regular basis to appreciate his overall excellence.

"He is arguably the most gifted grinder of all time -- and I say that with the highest sense of flattery intended," said Darren Eliot, a former goalie and a hockey analyst for Versus and SI.com.

There's a clean sheet of ice for everybody going into the opening game tonight of the Eastern Conference final against the Carolina Hurricanes.

But his two new wingers and a coach who had an incomplete picture of him just three months ago have a fuller appreciation of what Crosby is all about. And the appreciation goes beyond the numbers on the score sheet.

"One thing I didn't know was how competitive he is. He has such spirit and drive," Chris Kunitz said. "Every day, shift in and shift out, he gives it everything he has. And he has that extra gear that he somehow seems to find. He's a great ambassador for the game. He does everything right, on and off the ice."

Lots of things have impressed Billy Guerin -- the tape-to-tape passes, the vision, the anticipation of plays. But there is also Crosby's approach to the game.

"The mental aspect is one of his biggest assets. Young players tend to struggle with consistency. He's consistently ready for every single game that I've been involved with," Guerin said. "Then there's the physical part of it. His skating is as good or better than anybody I've ever seen."

One definition of a coach's dream is when his most talented player is also his hardest worker.

"He has a willingness to get better, to learn, to try to add to his game," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "He continually puts himself in different situations, trying to figure out ways to get better. He's a tireless worker."

In Game 7 against the Capitals, Bylsma noticed "a steely resolve" around the team captain. Teammate Max Talbot, who dresses next to Crosby in the home locker room, described it as the fire in his eyes.

"He's a gamer. He's a winner," Talbot said. "If you play anything with him, he wants to beat you. If you get into an argument with him, he thinks he has to win that, too. This situation [the playoffs] makes him 10 times better."

SCOUTING REPORT

Matchup: Carolina Hurricanes at Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.

Internet: Live game blog at Empty Netters

TV, radio: Versus; WXDX-FM (105.9).

Season Series: Penguins, 2-1-1.

Probable goaltenders: Cam Ward for Hurricanes; Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins.

Penguins: Have lost Game 1 in two of past three series. ... RW Bill Guerin has goal in three of past four games after getting none in previous seven. ... Outshot opponent in 11 of first 13 playoff games.

Hurricanes: Are 4-4 on road in playoffs. ... LW Erik Cole does not have goal in his past 27 playoff games. ... Have gone to Game 7 in past four series, winning all of them.

Hidden stat: C Eric Staal has a goal in seven of Hurricanes' eight playoff victories.




Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com . Penguins updates, live game blogs, your comments and more ... visit Empty Netters . First Published May 18, 2009 4:00 AM


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