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Kovacevic: Crosby flying, but this is just takeoff

| Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 12:06 a.m.
Penguins center Sidney Crosby carries the puck in the offensive zone against the Lightning in the first period Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
(Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review)
Penguins center Sidney Crosby carries the puck in the offensive zone against the Lightning in the first period Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, at Consol Energy Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Sidney Crosby has another level.

That's not a criticism. And it'll sound completely crazy on a Sunday night when the captain carried the Penguins with two goals and the sweetest assist to set down the Lightning, 5-3, at Consol Energy Center.

The Kid was sensational. He was skating on clouds out there.

“Flying,” was Paul Martin's term.

“Outstanding,” Pascal Dupuis called him.

Crosby's been strong all along, actually. And he'll need to be that much stronger given the word after the game that Evgeni Malkin was diagnosed with a concussion and won't make the upcoming three-game road trip.

But that should be fine with Crosby because there is more.

He has another level, another gear, another ceiling to smash.

He knows it, too.

“Yeah, for sure,” Crosby said after this one. “I think there are still points where the timing, the bouncing of the pucks, it's a matter of getting sharper. But I think if the work ethic is there, that stuff will come.”

Right. Future tense. As in, it isn't there yet.

Let's be honest: There's been this great unspoken, this terrible taboo that, however well Crosby does, we don't compare it to what we saw before the crash at the Winter Classic, before the concussion that cost him a year-plus of his career. We recall that scintillating spell of 32 goals and 34 assists in 41 games, that total dominance every time on the boards, but we set it aside as if that was some other Crosby.

Why, exactly, is that?

What's missing?

He's one point off the NHL scoring lead, right behind Tampa Bay's superb Steven Stamkos, who gallantly held the edge here Sunday. He's getting the best of goaltenders, as he did to poor Anders Lindback with that short-side, top-shelf special in the opening 76 seconds. He's setting up teammates with saucer specials like the one that brought Beau Bennett's first NHL goal. He's forechecking, backchecking, bodychecking and …

Well, OK, there is one thing.

Here's a stat I'll guess you haven't seen: Crosby has two power-play goals — out of his total of nine — through 19 games. Revisit all of his post-concussion action, and he's got four power-play goals in 47 games.

That's staggering.

Now, to repeat: That's not a criticism. Not close.

But to rewind to that scintillating spell again, Crosby scored 10 of those 32 goals on the power play. And he was doing so not just on the east-west that are the foundation of the power play now but also on deflections, rebounds and other stuff in tight. He wasn't so much a net-front guy as he was lurking off to the side, but he was there, and he was brilliant.

On a power play the other night against the Panthers, Crosby was stationed on the left side by the goal line. He couldn't shoot from there, couldn't even really set himself up for a pass. Not surprisingly, with each touch, he harmlessly flicked the puck back to the left point.

Worse, when other shots did get through, he stayed out on the perimeter.

I brought that up Sunday morning, and Crosby didn't hesitate with the response.

“Yeah, it's probably a tough place to be,” he acknowledged with a smile. “You're looking to pass, but there's no angle. You're looking for deception, maybe.”

That's how coach Dan Bylsma described that same sequence. He credited Crosby with distracting Florida defenseman Mike Weaver, who “was expecting 87 to be somewhere else,” and thus created more room for Malkin and James Neal.

Nothing wrong with that in isolation, of course. As Bylsma correctly added, “We've had quite a bit of motion with the power play, including Sidney.” Crosby has played below the goal line, on both half-walls and now on both points after an adjustment Sunday with Malkin out.

Moreover, there's no crime in having Crosby occasionally on the left side. He's right to stress, “I'm in a pretty good spot over there getting to feed two great shooters” in Malkin and Neal.

But the broader scope can't have Crosby as a decoy or even as a pure playmaker.

The Full Crosby, if you will, the one the Penguins must have to chase the Stanley Cup, is a scorer whose goal totals more closely approximate the assists. In 2009-10, his only 50-goal season, he had 51 plus 58 assists, roughly the same ratio as the greatest version of him, that one leading up to the injury.

He knows that, too.

“I'm starting to feel more comfortable shooting the puck,” Crosby said. “It's putting yourself in an area to get off a kind of shot like I had on that goal. I need to focus on that more.”

He's getting there, no doubt, and the buildup's been a blast. But know that there's more.

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