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Sidney Crosby, Penguins set to renew battle with Connor McDavid, Oilers

Jonathan Bombulie
| Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, 6:27 p.m.
Connor McDavid (left) of the Edmonton Oilers battles for the puck against Sean Couturier (14) and Robert Hagg (8) of the Philadelphia Flyers during an Oct. 21 game.
Getty Images
Connor McDavid (left) of the Edmonton Oilers battles for the puck against Sean Couturier (14) and Robert Hagg (8) of the Philadelphia Flyers during an Oct. 21 game.
The Oilers' Connor McDavid skates against the Flyers on Oct. 21, 2017, in Philadelphia.
Getty Images
The Oilers' Connor McDavid skates against the Flyers on Oct. 21, 2017, in Philadelphia.

One layer plays well on television pregame shows aimed at drawing in casual fans.

The undisputed king of NHL rinks. The fleet-footed youngster with eyes on his crown. Sidney Crosby. Connor McDavid. Next, only on AT&T SportsNet.

Another layer plays better to hockey nerds who pore over shot-attempt stats.

Should Mike Sullivan go power-on-power and play Crosby against McDavid head-to-head as much as possible, or should he look for softer matchups to give his captain a better chance at offensive success?

That's part of what makes the matchup between Crosby and McDavid so compelling as the pair of generational stars get set to face off for the third time in their careers Tuesday night when the Edmonton Oilers visit PPG Paints Arena.

It's a rivalry that everyone likes to talk about.

Well, maybe not everyone.

“There's always matchups and storylines and things like that,” a good-natured Crosby said after practice Monday. “We sit here and we talk about them, but our job is to go out there and play.”

Fair enough, Sid. You do your job, and we'll do ours, which is to dissect the head-to-head matchup six ways to Sunday.

So here goes.

In general, the consensus narrative in the hockey world these days goes something like this: McDavid, the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner, is the most dangerous offensive player in the game. Crosby, the two-time defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner, is the sport's consummate winner.

In a recent ESPN.com survey, 33 of 53 NHL players polled said Crosby is the best player in the world right now, but 41 of those same players said McDavid will be the best in four years.

To knock Crosby from his perch, McDavid's objective is simple. He has to win a Stanley Cup or three.

“I think experience helps you,” Crosby said. “I can only speak for my experience, and I think going to the final (in 2008) and losing probably was a really good learning experience for us as a group at that time. Going through that is something you go through in order to understand it.

“That being said, there's a handful of guys on our team who have probably proved that wrong and won in their first couple years in the league and have found a way.”

However the big-picture debate between Crosby and McDavid ends up, there's a hockey game to be played Tuesday night.

Last year, Crosby played about 32 even-strength minutes in two games against the Oilers. About 20 of them came with McDavid on the ice.

McDavid had a pair of assists going head-to-head with Crosby in the first meeting in Pittsburgh in October. Neither's line scored in the rematch in Edmonton in March. The Penguins won both games.

Don't be surprised if Sullivan pits the superstars against each other quite a bit Tuesday. The coach likes the idea of Crosby making opponents pay if they try to cheat for offense for even a second.

“I think Sid's play away from the puck is very underrated,” Sullivan said. “It flies under the radar because he's so dynamic offensively, but I don't know if there's a better center iceman in the league that plays away from the puck when it's needed or called upon.”

Here's a surprise, though.

If given the choice, Crosby would rather face a fourth line every shift than go head-to-head with McDavid repeatedly. As much as Crosby enjoys the competitiveness of a one-on-one rivalry, he likes the idea of spending his whole night in the offensive zone even more.

“You don't want to spend as much time in your end,” Crosby said. “A checking line tends to worry about defense more than trying to score against you.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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