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Crosby's defense with Pens is often overlooked

| Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 11:06 p.m.

Sidney Crosby needed a witness for his defense.

Evgeni Malkin testified Wednesday by comparing Crosby to fellow Russian center Pavel Datsyuk, a three-time winner of the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward.

“It's tough to say who (is) better,” Malkin said. “Datsyuk has a quicker stick, longer reach. He can take pucks from between your legs, if you have it close. Sid is so strong. He wins battles in corners. He plays physical. He takes puck from you like that, then goes to try (and) score.

“Both guys are great at defense.”

Datsyuk, of Detroit, is a finalist to win the Selke Trophy this season. He is joined by centers Jonathan Toews (Chicago) and Patrice Bergeron (Boston).

Finalists were announced Wednesday. The winner will be unveiled during the Stanley Cup final.

The Selke Trophy was one of the NHL Awards voted on by a record 178 members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, including six voters from the Pittsburgh chapter. Crosby is a finalist for the Hart (MVP) and Masterton (perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication) trophies, and the Lindsay Award (outstanding player).

Crosby never would publicly lobby for a Selke nomination, but Penguins right winger James Neal conceded his captain's defense is mostly underappreciated around the NHL.

“It's hard to explain,” Neal said. “You have to watch him play a lot.”

Even then, knowing what to look for is critical.

That was the case on perhaps Crosby's signature playoff goal, scored last Thursday at Consol Energy Center in Game 5 of the first-round series against the New York Islanders. The highlight was Crosby splitting two Islanders players — a la Mario Lemieux — before scoring on goalie Evgeni Nabokov.

“Rewind by 10 seconds, and you'll see that in the corner he breaks up a play, and then, he is the first guy up the ice,” Neal said.

Coach Dan Bylsma often has referred to Crosby as a “200-foot player” because he is tenacious in the offensive and defensive zones.

On average, Crosby generates about 10 chances every game — for himself or those on the ice with him — because of his work in the defensive zone, Bylsma said.

“We get to the offensive zone quick because he is so good defensively,” defenseman Kris Letang said.

“He makes defense look easy because he is so smart. He doesn't have to cheat. Most guys do. When he cuts off a play, he knows exactly where everybody is.”

Crosby is not a statistical darling defensively, though.

Even faceoffs results — a favorable real-time category for Crosby, who was at 54.3 percent during the season — are subject to scrutiny.

Most real-time stats are judgment calls.

Still, they are officially used to measure giveaways and takeaways even though they are generally dismissed because there are no set guidelines by which to judge for arena crews.

The Penguins were credited with only four giveaways in a 4-1 victory over Ottawa on Tuesday. The Penguins' staff considers a “good game” one in which players commit between 40-45 giveaways.

Datsyuk is a takeaway specialist. His 56 during the regular season were tied with Toews for first overall. Datsyuk was third with 97 takeaways last season and 11th with 71 in only 54 games the previous campaign.

Crosby, in his last healthy season with 81 games in 2009-10, was second on the Penguins with 43 takeaways — 13 fewer than Malkin, who played in only 67 contests.

There is no official stat for puck possession. That hurts Crosby's cause for consideration as an elite defensive player, Penguins center Brandon Sutter said.

“He's a guy that hangs on to the puck, and when you do that the other team doesn't get a chance to do anything against you,” Sutter said.

A couple of Senators players — center Kyle Turris and right winger Erik Condra — tried Wednesday to assess Crosby's defensive work, but they kept coming back to his “strength and explosiveness offensively.”

Crosby's offensive dominance — he was running away with scoring titles in two of the past three seasons cut short by injuries — is his worst enemy when it comes to defensive recognition, Malkin said.

“Defense, Sid?” Malkin said. “He is (the) best scorer.”

Malkin, a former MVP and two-time scoring champion, paused to consider his statement.

“Sid is (the) best player. He does everything.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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