UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Sidney Crosby had a career's worth of accomplishment -- scoring title, MVP, Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal -- before the first puck dropped in the 2010-11 season. He and Washington's Alex Ovechkin were widely regarded as the best players in hockey; the answer to the question of who was No. 1 often depended on which team you rooted for.
But like a rocket that has ignited its second stage, Crosby has taken his game to a whole new level -- and carried the Pittsburgh Penguins with him.
Crosby's coach says the key to his captain's improvement has been the fact that this season, he's been great on a nightly basis.
"I don't think he's been exponentially better," Dan Bylsma said before the Penguins played the New York Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday night. "But I think, through 38 games, that the consistency level at which he's played has been amazing.
"We've seen flashes and goals and highlight reels. We've seen spurts of greatness. But right now, it seems to be happening on a day-in and day-out basis. It's an amazing thing to watch, and it has propelled him to the season's he's on now."
Crosby's performance this season is remarkable, even for a player who's broken the 100-point barrier in four of his five full seasons.
Crosby entered the game as the runaway leader in the scoring race -- his 65 points were 13 more than runner-up Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay, and his 32 goals gave him a three-goal lead over Stamkos. He also entered the game with a 25-game point-scoring streak, the longest in the NHL in 18 years.
Perhaps most impressive about Crosby is the way he's worked to eliminate the weaker points of his game.
When he arrived in the NHL in 2005, Crosby was an easy mark in the faceoff circle -- he was 85th among the 88 qualifiers for the faceoff title, winning just 45.5 percent of his 1,174 draws.
Fast-forward to this season and he's 16th in faceoff percentage at 55.5 while leading the League by taking 904 draws; no one else has even taken 800.
Crosby struggled in the shootout in his early years; he's now one of the League's deadliest shooters, he's 9-for-13 since the start of the 2009-10 season.
"It will be a challenge for him to find out how to keep working and improving on his game," Bylsma said. "But that's his strength as an athlete. You can talk about his skating ability and skill, but his best thing is his desire and his need to improve and get better in his game -- to find ways and areas to do that.
"He does that in obvious ways, like faceoffs. He did that with his shot two summers ago. But he also does it in a lot of little areas that are a little bit harder to notice. He does them in practice every day. That's really his best asset as a player, and it keeps showing up in his game. You see him do things in practice, and see him translate that into success in the game."
Bylsma isn't the only one who's noticed the effect of Crosby's consistency.
"He does so many things well, and he does them so consistently, every night. It doesn't change,"
said Islanders center John Tavares, the No. 1 pick in the Entry Draft in 2009 -- four years after Crosby went No. 1 to the Penguins. "He scores goals, he’s very good in his own end, he wins faceoffs. He's so good at making plays and opening up space for himself. He makes everyone around him better."