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Time to put the puck on Crosby's stick

| Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2005

Mario Lemieux jumped out of the penalty box and made a beeline for referee Stephane Auger after the final horn Tuesday. He had to be restrained by the two linesmen.

But who was there to answer questions when reporters entered the Penguins' dressing room?

Lemieux's 18-year-old teammate, Sidney Crosby, that's who.

Lemieux never explained what happened on his interference penalty with 18.1 seconds left in regulation, the one that led to the Florida Panthers' winning goal in overtime. He obviously felt it was a case of incidental contact. It was hard to tell from the replays.

This we know for sure: The 4-3 loss extended the Penguins' season-opening winless streak to nine games (0-4-5). That puts them in the position of trying to become just the third team since 1990 to make the playoffs after opening with a winless streak of at least nine games.

We also know this: Crosby is by far the team's best player.

That's why it was so curious to see him sitting on the bench, watching a power play after a television timeout midway through the second period.

Crosby had just drawn a penalty for the fourth time in the game (the total would swell to six), making an incredible play to the split the Panthers' defense. The break should have given him ample time to freshen up. The Penguins trailed, 2-1.

Yet, when the puck dropped, Crosby was nailed to the bench. He would remain there for 1 minute, 15 seconds.

That would be fine if the Penguins had better options. They didn't. John LeClair was on the ice for those 75 seconds.

John LeClair played 19 minutes, 53 seconds last night.

John LeClair had 10 minutes of power-play time.

Crosby played less than John LeClair, logging 19:45 overall and 7:28 on the power play.

Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk finally has begun to pit Crosby with Lemieux, just not enough. Olczyk also has gradually increased Crosby's playing time, just not enough.

Lemieux and Crosby did play some on an extended and futile 5-on-3 in the first period. They should be together on every power play and at even-strength.

What's there to lose, nine more games?

In so many ways, Crosby put his stamp on this team last night. He crashed the net; he screened the goaltender; he made highlight-reel moves; and he maniacally killed a penalty.

It's way past time that he, not Lemieux, became the focal point of the power play. To use a basketball analogy, Lemieux has the ball most of the time but isn't doing a whole lot with it. He went pointless again last night, for the sixth time in nine games.

That doesn't mean the 40-year-old Lemieux won't find a groove. In fact, a world-class assist man might help him get into one.

Hello, Sidney.

Olczyk's take on why Lemieux and Crosby don't skate together at even strength -- to create balance -- makes sense, but this is desperation time.

"I don't think a lot of us not winning games has anything to do with our forward combinations," Olczyk said.

For sure, the Penguins had many other problems last night. Tops among them was goaltender Jocelyn Thibault.

Maybe Crosby can play goal, too.

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