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Rossi: Look who's best player in world again

| Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, 10:03 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Sidney Crosby, who had gone three straight games without a point, had an assist and an empty-net goal against the Red Wings.

There is a smile on The Face.

“I would say the fun-ness is back,” Chris Kunitz said of his longtime linemate who hasn't exactly moonlighted as the Face of Hockey.

“It's been nice seeing that smile back.”

There's something else about Sidney Crosby, something that seems different, that looks unfamiliar: room.

Room to move.

Room to breathe.

Room to play.

But more than anything — a new coach, his old winger or some puck luck — maybe what Crosby needed was less room in the penthouse he had to himself for a decade.

That's not how he sees it. It's not how his teammates see it.

I've seen him do before what he's been doing the past couple of months, beat on the world's finest hockey league like a John Bonham drum solo.

Says a lot about Crosby's prior dominance (15 goals and 16 assists in 23 games) that nobody seemed to notice he had gone three games without a point before having an assist and empty-net goal against the Red Wings on Thursday night.

Says even more that Crosby's return to MVP form has gone almost without notice outside of Pittsburgh.

Everywhere, it seems, the hockey world's citizens are watching somebody else.

Connor McDavid returns from injury to captivate Canadians. Patrick Kane is on his way to becoming America's first scoring champion. Russia's Alex Ovechkin never has been on a better Capitals club.

TV ratings were up for the NHL All-Star Game.

Crosby didn't play. He didn't get asked, not even when Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews dropped out at the last minute.

It's almost like the hockey gods are sending Crosby a message.

Kid, you've done enough. G o play. Go have fun.

It's not like that, though.

This season, the Penguins have received as many requests as usual for Crosby to grant interviews to non-Pittsburgh media, autograph items for charitable causes and promote league/union/team initiatives.

“I'm more comfortable saying no,” Crosby said.

Sure, that's why he granted me about 10 minutes after practice Wednesday, a scheduled day “off”' from media dealings. He also spoke with USA Today's Kevin Allen.

“He's been doing it for 10 years. He'll be doing it 10 years from now,” Kunitz said. “I don't think he's ever said it was a burden.

“Nope, he never has.”

I'll second that, and back Kunitz's assessment that Crosby has paid an undeserved toll for carrying a sport on his shoulders.

“He's a polarizing figure — throughout Canada, in the media,” Kunitz said. “When you're the guy under the bright light forever, people see that as being good and bad.

“I think that's why there was so much backlash at the beginning of the year when he struggled — if you want to call it that.”

Whatever it was, a lot of people called attention to Crosby producing only 65 points in 73 games from Jan. 1-Dec. 16, 2015. I thought his time as hockey's top player had passed.

I was wrong.

And I can't think of another player who could have willed the once-moribund Penguins back into playoff contention as Crosby has done in only seven weeks of the New Year.

How did he do it?

I'm guessing he didn't like coming back to a crowded penthouse and decided to take the place back.

Crosby sees it differently.

He probably also doesn't see that his beloved sport never has needed him less.

There are other faces that hockey fans around the world are focusing on. The penthouse is crowded with an old rival, another elite scorer and the next big thing.

Sidney Crosby isn't the Face of Hockey anymore.

He is the Best Player in the World again.

Pittsburgh's Penguins have never needed that guy more.

Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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