You might not know it, since the guy has two hat tricks in the past three games, but there are tougher jobs in hockey these days than trying to defend against Sidney Crosby.
Like, attempting to put into words precisely how well he has been playing lately.
Penguins defenseman Alex Goligoski, with the full weight of a University of Minnesota education behind him, gave it a shot after watching Crosby score all three of the Penguins' goals in their 3-2 victory against the Atlanta Thrashers Thursday night at Consol Energy Center.
"If you were looking for a word, I would say ... I don't know," Goligoski said, smiling. "My college education's not going to help me."
Neither would a thesaurus. Or a hyperactive imagination.
Crosby has been playing the finest hockey of his pro career for the past few weeks, which means that a guy who might be the finest player in the world under normal circumstances has elevated his game to a level most mortal players couldn't reach in their most outrageous daydreams.
"The boy is special," Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said. "There's no question. Everybody knows that. When players like that get on a roll, it's scary to play against them."
The same is true of Crosby's team. This victory was the Penguins' eighth in a row and ran their record to 10-0-1 since a 7-4 loss Nov. 10 to Boston.
The Thrashers, it should be noted, were not just another victim. They had won their previous six games and look a lot like a team that has the potential to be a factor, if not a force, in the Eastern Conference as the season plays out.
Atlanta got off to a good start in this one, too. The Thrashers ended the Penguins' run of 32 consecutive successful penalty-kills, six shy of the franchise record, at 6:21 of the opening period, when Bryan Little tossed in a rebound from in front of the net while Evgeni Malkin was serving a high-sticking minor.
"We were going to have to give one up at some point," penalty-killer Max Talbot said.
But just 71 seconds after that streak ended, another was extended when Crosby flipped a shot past Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec from along the goal line to the right of the net.
That goal, Crosby's 19th, stretched his points streak to 14 games, longest in the NHL this season.
Turned out to be just the first installment of a natural hat trick, too.
At 4:24 of the second, Crosby pulled in a long lead pass from Arron Asham and broke in alone on Pavelec before beating him with a backhander.
Crosby has hit the 20-goal mark in each of his six pro seasons. This time, he needed just 27 games, fewer than in any of the previous five. The most he needed was 53, in 2008-09.
A productive game became a prolific one at 10:18 of the second, when Crosby deflected a Brooks Orpik shot that was sailing wide of the Atlanta net past Pavelec to make it 3-1.
"That's about as good a tip as you'll see," Orpik said.
The goal pushed his league-leading points total to 44, four more than Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who is second. Not that Crosby is inclined to measure his work solely by goals and assists.
"I don't know," he said. "You try not to think about the points and things."
It's hard not to, where he's concerned, but Crosby appreciates that other facets of his game also are important. Like faceoffs, of which he won 12 of 21, although a loss to Rich Peverley with eight seconds left in regulation led to a final Atlanta scoring chance.
"He was apologizing to us for losing the faceoff clean at the end," Orpik said.
No apology was needed, however, since Talbot -- inadvertently or otherwise -- put himself in position to block Dustin Byfuglien's shot as time was winding down.
"I toe-picked," Talbot said. "I tried to cover as much ice as I could, and caught a little bit of ice and went head-first. I blocked the shot, so that's what matters."
Crosby's hiccup on that faceoff doesn't cost the Penguins anything more than a bruise on Talbot's arm. It certainly didn't detract from the work he did in the previous 59-plus minutes, or the several weeks that preceded them.
"It still amazes me, how good he is," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "How hard he works to get better."
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published December 3, 2010 5:00 AM