Pressure continues to pursue Crosby
So far, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby's season hasn't gone as planned — verbal jabs from opponents, public denouncements from the media and criticism from fans.
Plus, his club, two victories shy of the Stanley Cup last year, is currently fighting for a playoff spot.
Perhaps those are the reasons Crosby, the player often called "the Face of the NHL," has smiled a lot less this season.
"It's probably always something you deal with when a team is not doing as well," Crosby said of the vitriol aimed at him in recent months. "They look at leadership."
The hockey world has looked at Crosby, who turned 21 only seven months ago, as a savior for so long that some National Hockey League players wonder if he has become a victim of unrealistic expectations.
"I can only imagine how he feels and what he goes through," longtime Dallas Stars center Mike Modano said. "He's the guy who is supposed to carry this league for the next 15 years. That must feel like the weight of the world on his shoulders.
"And it's not just in Pittsburgh, he feels it everywhere."
Those closest to Crosby have noticed.
"Everyone expects so much out of him," said former Penguins winger Ryan Malone, who spent three seasons occupying the locker next to Crosby before his trade to Tampa Bay last June. "For whatever reason, this year people are really kind of all over him."
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"Crosby got too much hype than what he truly is — not the best player in the world by a long shot."
— Penguins fan Pat Schrecengost of Kittanning
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Over the past four months, Crosby and rival Alexander Ovechkin, 23, of the Washington Capitals — the player that bested him for top rookie honors in 2006, the guy that last season supplanted him as leading scorer and MVP -- have taken turns holding the second spot in the points race.
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, 22, has topped the scoring list since November.
San Jose center Joe Thornton, a former MVP and scoring champion, said last month Malkin was "the best player in the world."
During an NBC broadcast of the Penguins-Capitals game Feb. 22, analyst and former league general manager Mike Milbury described Ovechkin as "the best player in the world, by far."
That title once belonged to Crosby, who is in the first season of a five-year contract that totals $43.5 million.
He was the first Canadian prospect charged with "saving the game," as former player Luc Robitaille noted, after the NHL cancelled the 2004-2005 season because of a labor dispute.
That charge made Crosby stand out as a rookie, even on a team captained by Penguins legend Mario Lemieux.
"I guess the media always looked at him as different, sort of mature, and the rest of the world viewed him as a super child," Malone said. "The first day I met him, he just seemed like a normal human being."
Very little about Crosby seemed normal on the ice from his debut practice with the Penguins, who selected him first overall in 2005.
"He saw things other guys didn't and could do things other guys couldn't," former teammate and road roommate Ryan Whitney said. "It was sick. Five minutes in, you knew everything you heard about the guy was dead-on."
Away from the rink, Crosby impressed teammates with his ability to be "one of the guys," despite obvious differences such as a Canadian reporter chronicling his every move for a book about his rookie experience.
"He was a pretty normal kid — really humble," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I'm talking off the ice. On it, you could see right away that he was super competitive, driven and hated to lose. Those qualities are what I think made people think of him as a leader, even when he was a rookie."
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"What's so special about him• I don't see anything special there. If you take any player, even if he is dead wood, and start promoting him, you'll get a star."
— Washington LW Alexander Semin, in an Oct. 31 interview with yahoosports.com
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Hockey great Wayne Gretzky once predicted Crosby could break all 61 of his NHL records.
"He won't, and I know Wayne said it, but he won't," said Robitaille, the all-time leading scorer among NHL left wings. "But Sid got off to a pretty good start, didn't he?"
As a rookie at 18 Crosby was the youngest player to reach the 100-point plateau. As a sophomore at 19 he was voted the league's best player by his peers. Last season, he became the youngest captain in league history at 20, and he returned from a mid-season right ankle injury to finish tied for the playoff scoring lead as the Penguins advanced to the Stanley Cup final.
Crosby once described hockey as his great passion — his way of explaining the mere two weeks he takes off every summer.
Over the past few winters, though, a teammate and a nemesis have become breakout characters in a league once tabbed as "The Crosby Show."
"He hasn't taken a step back — Ovechkin and Malkin have picked it up," said Robitaille, now president of business operations with the Los Angeles Kings. "Sid's biggest sin is that there are three of these guys that are that amazing."
No lower than third in the scoring race since November, Crosby remains noticeably absent from MVP discussion that focuses on Malkin and Ovechkin.
"I was the second-leading scorer in the league when I got hurt," Crosby said of his recent four-game absence due to a groin injury. "I would like to play a little bit better, but I don't think it was awful, either."
Through Wednesday, Crosby rated second in assists, even-strength points, road points and division points — despite missing five games because of injuries. He and Ovechkin were tied for second with a point-per-game average of 1.32, only slightly off Crosby's 1.37 career mark, which rates fifth-best in league history.
"He's earned the pressure — that's how I look at it with Sidney," Robitaille said. "I don't look at the pressure as being a bad thing because it means people expect great things from you."
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"In the case of Sidney Crosby ... sometimes I wonder if he's having much fun."
— NBC analyst Mike Milbury, during a Feb. 22 national broadcast of a game between the Penguins and Capitals
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Playing and leading is a lot more fun when the team is winning.
"I haven't changed what I've done from last year to this year," Crosby said. "With success, everything is a little bit easier, and sometimes people look for negative things as much as they look for positive things."
First-year Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, 20, agreed with Crosby.
"I'm one of those guys whose job is easier because we're winning," said Toews, whose team is ready to end a long playoff drought. "The success Sidney had as a young leader in Pittsburgh, even before he was captain, made it an easier decision to put young guys, myself included, into leadership roles."
The Penguins stopped winning regularly late in November.
Their struggles cost coach Michel Therrien his job Feb. 15.
Therrien said the very first decision he made upon replacing Eddie Olczyk as coach in December 2005 remains one of his proudest. He named Crosby, then a rookie, an alternate captain.
Therrien also recently dismissed speculation of a rift with Crosby.
"There were no problems between me and Sid or between Sid and his teammates," Therrien said. "He hates to lose. We were losing more than we expected, and he hated it — you could see it on his face."
Therrien said Crosby was and is "the perfect choice to be the captain of that young team."
"People forget how young some of those players are because they were so good so fast," Therrien said of the Penguins, whose top three forwards in terms of ice-time are Crosby, Malkin and center Jordan Staal, 20.
"Even Sid is still young. People get tired of hearing that, but it's the truth. He's probably the best player in the world most nights, but he's also only 21."
Crosby is younger than University of Pittsburgh basketball stars Sam Young, 23, and Levance Fields, 22 in June, and top Pirates prospects Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen, each 22.
"His situation is so different than anybody in any sport," Toews said of Crosby. "He's a young captain that also shoulders the responsibility of being the guy that is out there selling hockey around the world, not just in Pittsburgh.
"I don't think any young player has been asked to do as much as Sid. That probably makes his job more difficult. A lot of young guys get time to adjust and develop. Sid has had to be Sidney Crosby for a long time."
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"I hate to say this, but maybe Sidney Crosby shouldn't be the captain of this team. Maybe he is too young and isn't the type to stand up and take charge."
— Penguins fan Beth Wellhausen of Bethel Park
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Privately, Penguins teammates are worried about Crosby amid the criticism.
"I don't know what people — the media, some fans — are talking about," Penguins forward Max Talbot said last month. "He's our captain. He was our captain last season, and we almost won the Stanley Cup. Maybe so far this year we haven't lived up to our expectations, but you can't blame that on Sid."
Everything about Crosby — from his living arrangement with team co-owner Lemieux to on-ice wars of words with Ovechkin — has come under scrutiny.
"That's natural, that's what happens when you're a captain," Crosby said.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said recently that people are "blaming Sid" for the Penguins' fall from grace this season.
"He wears the big target because of who he is," Fleury said. "He keeps us from taking a lot of the shots, but they all hit him."
Dallas' Modano knows that drill.
A Minnesota high-school star drafted at 18 in 1988 by his home-state North Stars, Modano acknowledged "a long period of feeling I was responsible for everything good and bad involving my team" that lasted through the franchise's relocation and ended only with its Cup win in 1999.
"I could tell him to miniaturize his goals and take everything on a day-by-day basis, but the big thing for him — because this was it for me — is to remember that this is a game, and it's supposed to be fun," Modano said. "At that age, though, it's hard to think like that.
"I'd tell Sid to be patient, because all this criticism will turn for him ... and it will be a lot more gratifying when it does because of all this he's going through now."
Penguins center Sidney Crosby, 21, may not be on pace to "break all of (Wayne Gretzky's) records," as Gretzky once predicted. However, through almost four full seasons, Crosby is trekking toward elite company. A look at where Crosby would rank all-time in points if he maintains his current per-game rate (1.37) for 1,000 more games:
Most NHL points
Player: Points — Games — PPG
Wayne Gretzky: 2,857 — 1,487 — 1.92
Mark Messier: 1,887 — 1,756 — 1.07
Gordie Howe: 1,850 — 1,767 — 1.05
Ron Francis: 1,798 — 1,731 — 1.04
Marcel Dionne: 1,771 — 1,348 — 1.31
*Sidney Crosby: 1,743 — 1,273 — 1.37
*—Projections based off statistics through Wednesday.
Source: NHL Guide and Record Book
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