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Kovacevic: Crosby proves to be the smartest man in hockey

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 12:09 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis celebrate with Sidney Crosby after the second of his two first-period goals on Friday, May 17, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

He's the pitcher with the 99 mph heat who still can fan the Mendoza Line hitter with a filthy curve.

He's the quarterback capable of a full-stride Hail Mary who still can look off the safety and audible a screen.

He's Sidney Crosby.

And for all his marvelous athleticism, the hyperdrive skating, the heavy shot, the velvet touch, the one facet of his all-around extraordinary game that goes largely unappreciated, I think, is that he's not only the best player in hockey but also among its brightest.

Maybe the brightest, given the velocity at which those brain cells are forced to keep pace.

“He's right there,” Jarome Iginla was saying Friday night after the Penguins fended off the Senators, 4-3, in Game 2 of this Stanley Cup playoff series. “It's almost like there's nothing he does that surprises you. I mean, there's all the skill, but there's also the compete level, the speed he's doing everything with … yeah, he's that good, that smart.”

Care to debate?

Better question: Which of Crosby's three goals do you think resulted more from his physical gifts than his guile?

My count is exactly zero, but hey, let's have a little fun breaking it down, anyway …

First period, three minutes in, Crosby wheeled up the left side of the neutral zone. Had options to his right. Sized up what was ahead. Chose the latter.

Of course he chose the latter.

It's only Erik Karlsson, the Norris Trophy winner, right?

Well, not so fast. For one, Karlsson didn't claim that Norris for anything he'd ever achieved inside his own blue line. For another, as most in these parts will recall, Karlsson's Achilles tendon was severed in February, and he conceded this week he's “not 100 percent.”

Don't think for a second Crosby wasn't processing that thought with each churn of his skates. The ice is his chess board.

“No, I didn't know it was him,” the captain replied when I asked.

Believe him?

That's up to you, but he continued: “I think he was getting ready to gap up, and I was able to catch a stride there. He's a great skater, so being able to catch a step and get around him … it worked out pretty well.”

Actually, it was a puckish Picasso. Karlsson backed off as if Crosby were approaching with an elephant gun, the captain danced inside the defenseman, then flicked the puck through Craig Anderson's five-hole.

1-0.

Karlsson was asked about the play and shot back, “Were you blind?”

End of interview session.

He knew who got torched.

Next came my favorite.

Sixteen minutes in, Crosby again whisked up the left side, this time breaking free by simply gaining a step on a three-on-two. To his right was Chris Kunitz, farther over Pascal Dupuis a bit late.

Anderson clearly had seen this clip before. You know, the one where Crosby looks the goaltender dead in the eye, tees up … and feeds Dupuis for the alley-oop.

So Anderson wouldn't bite. And still got beat.

Of course he did.

Crosby rifled the puck to that short side the keeper unwisely abandoned.

2-1.

“I knew Duper was coming, and I was kind of running out of room down there,” Crosby recalled. “But I wasn't sure if Anderson would come off the post or not. Just kind of threw it to the net.”

Sure he did.

Believe him yet?

A minute into the second period, Penguins on the power play, Crosby was left alone atop the left circle.

“Shooooooooot!” the crowd implored.

Nope. Not yet. Crosby had Iginla at the goal line and cast him a glance. Chris Phillips, the Senators' most experienced defenseman, abandoned the slot to go that way.

Of course he did.

That's what Crosby anticipated and, the moment Phillips was screening Anderson, Crosby shot and found the far side.

3-1.

On this one, he acknowledged a least a little intent.

“Yeah, I did wait for Phillips to come across there. Just wanted to have some traffic.”

If looks could kill, with the glare Anderson gave Phillips right before Paul MacLean yanked him, Phillips would no longer be with us.

Don't sweat what followed. Big leads can bring bigger complacency, and the Penguins bent but didn't break down the stretch. Bottom line is they chased Anderson, generated 42 total shots and could have had a bunch more.

Also, they showed the Senators something — someone, rather — they aren't close to having on their side.

One last one …

Ottawa was pressing hard with five minutes to go, and squirtbug Cory Conacher was chasing Crosby all over the surface. Whacking him, too.

Crosby fought through, claimed the puck, bolted up ice and, when Conacher's stick flew up and caught him on the Iron Jaw helmet — and it really did clip him — Crosby made plenty sure that didn't escape the eye of the men in stripes.

Power play, Pittsburgh.

Game, set, match and halfway to a series victory.

Here's betting he wouldn't confess to being smart there, either.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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