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Kovacevic: Crosby vs. Lemieux? Beyond compare

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 11:11 p.m.
Chaz Palla
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby plays against the Rangers on Saturday, March 16, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby fights back against Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi after Girardi knocked off Crosby's helmet in the first period Saturday, March 16, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

Being the best, even by a margin of unprecedented brilliance, is never enough in sports. The past is always there to remind that someone in another era, even another century, might have been better. Every Michael Phelps has his Mark Spitz, every

Tom Brady his Terry Bradshaw, every LeBron his Michael, every Tiger his Golden Bear.

There's always someone who came before.

And we love those debates, don't we?

We certainly have in local hockey circles for a long time now.

When Mario Lemieux carried the whacking lumberjack Marc Fortier on his back to score that iconic goal in Quebec, it wasn't enough for us that no one else was humanly capable of such a feat.

No, we had to compare 66 to 99, Lemieux to Wayne Gretzky.

And now that Sidney Crosby is clearly, magnificently back atop his craft and, thus, atop his sport — elegantly on display yet again Saturday with his omnipresent buzz in the Penguins' 3-0 shutout of the Rangers — there's an urge to do the same with him.

Is Sid better than Mario?

Better than Wayne?

Maybe it's just that hard to process that someone can be this good and not be the best who ever played.

•••

I'm no fan of this debate, I'll tell you right now.

It's not that Crosby hasn't earned being mentioned alongside Lemieux. He absolutely has. And if you doubt that much, remember it was Lemieux himself who declared in late 2010 — as Crosby was dominating the NHL like never before — that Crosby's play was “much more impressive than what I did years ago.”

Whether Lemieux was simply being polite isn't the point. It's that Crosby belongs in the discussion. He did so then and, thanks to the bold recovery from a year lost to concussion, he's done so again.

But let's end it right there.

Please.

At least from this view, Lemieux is untouchable. Even setting aside the numbers and achievements, his combination of poise, precision, power, presence, size and grace will never be seen again. He's the conversation-killer to all hockey arguments.

More to the point, there really isn't much to directly compare, if only because Lemieux and Crosby have so little in common.

Here, let's try a little back and forth:

Shooting: The legendary Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov nailed it when he called Lemieux the greatest goal scorer he'd ever seen. Lemieux could bury it from the point or the crease or the goal line, with force or marksman's accuracy or sleight of hand. If it was a breakaway, the red light might as well have been lit in advance.

Crosby's methods for scoring aren't based nearly as much on his shot as his speed. That's not to diminish the shot, especially the devastating backhander off his unusually straight blade. Rather, it's that he creates his chances by darting in and out near the crease, by spinning into the slot, by superlative hand-eye coordination. On the rush, his ability to pinpoint openings while gaining the zone at top speed is unparalleled.

Totally different styles.

Skating: Lemieux stood tall, changed speeds, surveyed the rink like a patient prospector. Crosby churns low in a wide straddle and goes all out all the time.

Lemieux would beat a man by slipping the puck between his legs or twisting him around. Crosby will simply switch to hyperdrive.

What's to compare?

Passing: Lemieux's vision and touch are matched only by Gretzky in NHL history, though Crosby is close. Lemieux's ability to see two, even three plays ahead made him much more of a force on the power play than Crosby. Opponents backed off Lemieux because they knew he'd pick them apart. They still go right after Crosby.

Crosby generates more offense in tighter quarters because of his superior play on the boards. Lemieux lurked away from traffic, where Crosby thrives in the thick of it. Some of Crosby's most impressive plays are made with short whacks, kicks, tumbles, lunges, anything to get the puck to a teammate.

Again, little in common.

• Defense: Lemieux didn't like defense, but he was among the game's most effective defensive forwards when the mood struck him. Much like Evgeni Malkin now, Lemieux's reach and anticipation made him a presence. Moreover, he killed penalties regularly — once had 13 short-handed goals in a season — whereas Crosby's toe has only dipped into that water.

How to measure?

Work/intangibles: Because Lemieux prioritized offense, he had a tendency to take his breathers on the ice as much as on the bench. Many criticized that, but he could log 28-30 minutes because he conserved energy.

Crosby, of course, is utterly relentless. That's commendable to the umpteenth power, but it also means he sits more.

We're not really getting far here, are we?

There are areas where Lemieux and Crosby are similar, even comparable, such as their stick handling, ability to receive passes and one-timed shots.

For the most part, though, it's apple vs. orange.

•••

Maybe the fairest way to measure Crosby is to carve out his own category.

For that, I sought a little help in the press box Saturday from Pierre McGuire, the NBC analyst and former assistant with the Penguins while Lemieux played.

McGuire crushed it.

“Sidney's got the vision of Gretzky, the tenacity of Peter Forsberg and a pure goal-scorer's touch,” McGuire began. “Included in that is the best backhander the game's ever seen, better than Stan Mikita's. Add all that up, and you've got a very special player, unlike any player the game's ever seen.”

Exactly. Unlike any.

“There's no comparing Mario and Sid,” McGuire added. “They're two totally different players.”

Exactly.

Just look at what Crosby did Saturday: He planted New York defenseman Dan Girardi on his rear. He flicked the puck over Ryan McDonagh's stick on a rush to torch him one-on-one. He burst down the left side for a full-speed redirect that Henrik Lundqvist did well to stop. He wore down the Rangers' top defensemen at every turn, grinding like a fourth-liner as much as any first-liner ever has. He even led all skaters in — for real — blocked shots with four.

That's Crosby's contribution without registering a point, none of it remotely Lemieux-like but no less exceptional.

“He's amazing right now,” Pascal Dupuis said.

“Highest level I've ever seen him,” Brooks Orpik said.

I wrote three weeks ago that Crosby had yet another notch to reach. Safe to say this is it.

“You know, I feel comfortable,” Crosby said to that topic. “I still feel like there are areas where I can get better, but yeah, the way my linemates are going, they're making it easier, that's for sure.”

No need to complicate, and no need to compare.

Mario will always be Mario.

Sid will always be Sid.

Let's just consider ourselves fantastically fortunate for the one facet of their careers we're certain they've shared.

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