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Kovacevic: No excuses for Crosby, Malkin

| Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, 6:06 p.m.
REUTERS
Canada's men's ice hockey team captain Sidney Crosby listens as coach Mike Babcock gives directions during a team practice at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on Feb. 18, 2014.
REUTERS
Canada's men's ice hockey team captain Sidney Crosby takes part in a team practice at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, February 18, 2014.
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Canadian captain Sidney Crosby had two assists in three preliminary round games at the WInter Olympics. Canada faces Latvia in a quarterfinal game Wednesday.

SOCHI, Russia — There has to be temptation for any Pittsburgher to cringe, maybe even clench a fist, when hearing or reading the criticism of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at these Olympics.

I mean, nobody knows them like us, right?

They're ours. Always have been.

Besides, the bulk of it has been legitimately unfair.

There's nothing more ridiculous than Canadians pointing out their captain's low point total — two assists through three games — without acknowledging Crosby has put tape-to-tape passes on nearly a dozen blades in point-blank range only to watch them come up empty time and again.

For that matter, if Crosby wouldn't be playing with his fourth different set of linemates in as many games Wednesday in the quarterfinal against Latvia — Chris Kunitz is back, and Patrice Bergeron is on the right — maybe there would be some semblance of continuity.

Almost as ridiculous has been the Russian criticism of Malkin. He has only a goal and two assists, nothing in the past three games, including a 4-0 flattening of Norway on Tuesday in the qualification round. It looks awful, but the Russians' coaching, from line combos to that passive 1-4 trap to ... man, just how clueless they look, has ranged from damaging to deadly.

Unless, of course, anyone can identify the first iota of logic in Malkin being on the second power-play unit.

A lot of what has been spoken and written has been out of line, no question.

That said, so what?

Seriously, isn't it about time, instead of Pittsburghers making excuses legit or otherwise, instead of debating linemates or strategy, instead of bowing before the opponents' goalie or system, that Crosby and Malkin just rise above it all?

Isn't that what great players do?

Let's see it.

Because, you know, it's been a while:

• In their only other Olympics, 2010 in Vancouver, Crosby delivered one of the great goals in hockey history. It was clutch to the max. It was iconic. But he'd be the first to tell you he didn't have a great tournament, with seven points in seven games. Malkin's Russians finished an embarrassing sixth while he had six points in four games.

• In NHL playoff series in which the Penguins were eliminated since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 — not including 2011, when Crosby and Malkin were injured — Crosby had 13 points in 17 games, Malkin 11 points in 17 games. And nothing at all on Tuukka Rask, you might recall.

• Crosby never has scored a playoff overtime goal.

• The most recent playoff game-winner for both came in 2010, Crosby against Ottawa and Malkin against Montreal.

• Crosby has one third-period goal in his past 28 postseason games. One!

I could keep going except that it'll come across as disrespectful. This isn't intended as anything of the sort. I believe Crosby and Malkin are the two best players on the planet as well as unparalleled competitors.

But here's the thing: Holding those distinctions would powerfully suggest that such a player/competitor should be atop his craft when it matters most.

Circumstances be damned.

Tuesday after practice, Crosby sounded at least a little aware of the fuss back home about him and Kunitz and why they were unable to pummel Norway and Austria by a couple of touchdowns each. That's very much the Canadian way.

“I'd like to score more. I'd have said that a month ago, too,” Crosby said. “I don't think I'm out there thinking about where a guy's going to be or second-guessing a play because I haven't played with that guy. I would do the same things I would do in Pittsburgh.”

The primary knock — and this is where Kunitz comes in — has been that Crosby is difficult to play with. That's true. Everyone knows that. But the myth that has arisen is that he doesn't pass well or make other players better, both of which are ridiculous.

Here's the real issue, as Canada teammate Rick Nash described Tuesday as well as anyone I've heard: “He's a tough guy to keep up with. He's so fast. The way he thinks about the game seems like it's far beyond everyone else's thought process.”

Exactly. Which is why the best thing Crosby can do, from this view, is just be himself. He has denied it a couple of times when I've asked if he has slowed down and over-passed, but I don't buy it. He needs to skate at warp speed, cycle and spin at will, drive to that net and wreak his usual havoc. That's when Crosby's at his best, whether he's with Jonathan Toews or Jayson Megna.

Only the Russians know what Malkin is thinking, of course — he's still not speaking with North American reporters — but his problem has been the polar opposite of Crosby's: You couldn't pry the puck off his stick with a crowbar since he has come over. Rather than capitalizing on sharing a line with the world's most feared shooter, he's pretty much trying to stickhandle through entire nations.

If he tried that in Pittsburgh, James Neal would read him the riot act. Ovechkin won't. The vacant coaches won't. So it's incumbent on the great player to figure out greatness for himself.

Both need to do that and sooner rather than later in their otherwise brilliant careers. Events like this can kill false narratives or fan them to new heights.

Circumstances be damned.

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