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Tim Benz: Penguins' Sidney Crosby keeps tight grip on NHL torch

| Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, 8:24 p.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby takes control of the puck from the Oilers' Adam Larsson in the first period Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby takes control of the puck from the Oilers' Adam Larsson in the first period Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.

Implied in the phrase “passing of the torch” is a suggestion the flame is dimming.

This is not the case with Sidney Crosby.

While the NHL is blessed with an unusual wealth of young talent willing to grab that torch from the league's top player, it doesn't appear the Penguins captain is close to loosening his grip.

Crosby and his Penguin teammates just beat reigning MVP Connor McDavid and his Oilers on Tuesday. They will see the 20-year-old phenom again next Wednesday.

“It's nice to see the both of them performing at the top of their game,” Edmonton coach Todd McLellan said. “It's a real reward for fans of the NHL.”

It doesn't stop with Crosby vs. McDavid, though. On Thursday, the Penguins host 19-year-old goal-scoring stud Patrik Laine and Winnipeg at PPG Paints Arena. Then a rematch on Sunday in Winnipeg. Also, Calgary young star Johnny Gaudreau will be on the other bench Nov. 2 and Buffalo cornerstone Jack Eichel on Nov. 14.

Fan bases in each city hope their star will be “the next one” to replace Crosby as “the best one” in the game.

It looks like they will have to wait.

“We don't see him slowing down anytime soon,” Penguin coach Mike Sullivan said Tuesday. “He's an extremely physically fit guy. He takes care of himself. He lives the right way. He does the right things off the ice. He is in the prime of his career right now.”

Yes, Sidney Crosby is 30. And he has 12 NHL seasons under his belt. But Wayne Gretzky totaled 878 points after his first dozen seasons. Mario Lemieux scored 119 goals when he was 30 and 31. Steve Yzerman won all three of his Stanley Cups after his 30th birthday.

Is there any reason to believe Crosby can't replicate those accomplishments in some way?

“Everybody thinks, ‘He is 30 years old,' ” Sullivan said. “Well, I look at Sid, and I think he is a young guy.”

And with age comes refinement.

Crosby's elite standing as captain of the Cup champs and figurative title as “Best Player in the World'' is being challenged from this batch of up-and-comers. But he is warding off their advances with a different skill set than what you might expect.

Defense.

On Tuesday, Crosby spent 10 minutes, 58 seconds on the ice with McDavid, according to naturalstattrick.com, in the Penguins' 2-1 overtime win.

In the limited time when McDavid was on the ice without facing Crosby, McDavid's Corsi-For was 70 percent. With Crosby on the ice, it was 44 percent.

And McDavid's beautiful third-period snipe of a goal to tie the score at 1-1 was accomplished while Crosby was on the bench.

“You just have to understand who you are playing against,” Crosby deadpanned. “And in this case, it was a lot of Connor. So you just … prepare.”

Well “just preparing” for McDavid's skill and speed is akin to “just preparing” for Mariano Rivera's cutter. Or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook. You know what's coming. But good luck trying to stop it.

Yet Crosby did. And a younger version of “Sid the Kid” might have entered this contest feeling like he needed to outscore McDavid to win the game. And win the matchup on the score sheet. But the 30-year-old edition with three Stanley Cups applied a different stamp.

“I thought his defensive game was on display (against McDavid's line),” Sullivan said. “For me, Sid could be in the conversation for the Selke (Trophy) if he wanted to, based on his two-way game. When he goes head-to-head against a guy like McDavid, it brings out the best in him at both ends of the rink.”

Mark Letestu played with Crosby in Pittsburgh from 2009-12. Now he is McDavid's teammate in Edmonton. And he said McDavid still can learn from Crosby in the offensive end, too.

“I think if Connor wants to add the goal-scoring totals he is talking about, he is going to need to add those little skills around the net that Sid has,” Letestu said. “And Sid is a great role model for him to model his game after.”

In Pittsburgh, the line of progression was clear. Lemieux drafted, played with and even housed Crosby. And when he was 41, he retired. Thus leaving the hockey stick-in-the-stone for Crosby to grasp as the league's best player.

He did.

He hasn't let go of it since.

And he doesn't appear ready to do so for quite some time despite the many capable hands trying to seize it.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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