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Crosby raising his game to a new level

by John Kreiser /
Pittsburgh used to have "Mario the Magnificent." Now there's "Sid the Sensational."

Sidney Crosby staked his claim as one of the NHL's elite players almost as soon as he entered the NHL in 2005. He already owns a scoring title, an MVP award and a Stanley Cup ring -- pretty good for a 23-year-old. But Crosby has been taking his game to a new level this season, and especially in the past month.

Sid got the first natural hat trick of his career on Thursday, scoring all three of Pittsburgh's goals in a 3-2 win against Atlanta. Two nights later, he scored two more goals as the Penguins won 7-2 at Columbus. That efford earned him the NHL's First Star of the Week honors Monday.

The Star of the Week award came less than a week after he was awarded the League's First Star for November. In 14 games last month, he had 12 goals, 14 assists and at least a point in the final 13 games.

The two-goal night gave Crosby 23 in 28 games -- a pace that would put him over the 65-goal mark for a full season. His points streak is at 15 games and counting, and he's scored eight times in his last three games -- including hat tricks in his last two games at the new Consol Energy Center, something that can't make the New Jersey Devils feel very good as they prepare for the Penguins' first visit Monday.

Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller was named Second Star. He turned in back-to-back shutouts in his two starts last week. Edmonton Oilers rookie forward Taylor Hall was named Third Star after scoring 4 goals in four games. He had the first 2-goal game of his career last Thursday against the Maple Leafs, and two nights later scored his first overtime goal to beat the Blues.

Five up — Five players who've been hot:

Ryan Miller -- You can't play goal any better than Miller did for the Buffalo Sabres last week. Two games, 125 minutes, 0 goals allowed, two shutouts, including one in which he also had to stop three shootout attempts to win 1-0. His scoreless streak is up to 148:14. Perfection is tough to top. He also earned Second Star of the Week honors Monday.

Kevin Shattenkirk -- Colorado called up its top pick in the 2007 Entry Draft a month ago when injuries decimated its defensive corps. Little did they Avs know they were getting an offensive boost as well. Shattenkirk has 13 points during a nine-game scoring streak that continued when he had 2 assists on Saturday. Overall, he has 16 points in his first 16 NHL games.

Dustin Byfuglien -- Atlanta's decision to move Byfuglien back to the blue line has been an unqualified success. He has 28 points in 27 games, including a four-point game last Sunday and an assist in Saturday's 3-1 win at Washington that gave him 12 points in eight games.

Nikolai Khabibulin -- There were no chinks in the "Bulin Wall" after he returned from a groin injury last week. Khabibulin shut out the Maple Leafs in Toronto, then allowed one goal in Edmonton's 2-1 victory against St. Louis on Saturday -- giving the Oilers their fourth win in a row.

Tim Thomas --
If the voting for the Vezina Trophy were held today, Thomas would have to be the favorite to bring home the award for the second time in three years. Thomas went 2-0-1 for Boston last week, allowing just three goals despite facing 119 shots. He's tops in save percentage (.956), goals-against average (1.46) and shutouts (5).

Five down — Five players who are struggling:

Brendan Morrison -- After a good start for the Calgary Flames, Morrison's scoring touch has vanished. He's gone eight games without a point and has only eight shots on goal in that span -- and is among the reasons the Flames have been offensively challenged during the past few weeks.

Travis Zajac -- After back-to-back 60-point seasons, the New Jersey Devils have to be disappointed in the play of Zajac, who was counted on for big things this season. Instead, he has just 2 goals and 9 points in 26 games and hasn't had a point in his last six despite getting more than 20 minutes a game during that span.

Daniel Alfredsson -- As a team, the Ottawa Senators are struggling badly in the offensive zone -- they've been shut out in their last two games, both at home. No one is more frustrated than their captain, who has gone without a point in his last six games and has just 18 points in 27 games -- a tough start for a 1,000-point scorer who's been a point-a-game player throughout his career.

Peter Budaj -- Craig Anderson's injuries have meant more playing time for Budaj in goal for Colorado, but he's struggled badly during the last couple of weeks. Budaj surrendered six goals in Saturday's loss at Tampa Bay and has allowed 19 goals while going 1-3-1 in his last five starts.

Chad LaRose -- LaRose had a career night on Nov. 17 with 2 goals and 4 points against Ottawa. Since then, he's gone stone cold, failing to produce a point in any of Carolina's eight games despite averaging about 18 minutes of ice time.

Injuries, news and notes -- Every NHL team battles injuries during the season -- and that includes the officials. Referee Gord Dwyer will be out for a while due to facial fractures after taking a puck in the face on Wednesday.

Out -- Tampa Bay's Steve Downie will be out indefinitely after spraining his ankle on Thursday night. … Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne will miss 2-4 weeks after injuring his left knee on Wednesday night in Columbus. … Anaheim put forward Aaron Voros on the injured list due to a bad case of the flu. … Toronto forward Mike Brown is out for 4-6  weeks with a broken finger sustained on Tuesday. … Chicago lost forward Marian Hossa for at least a couple of weeks with a lower-body injury. … Dallas put forward Krys Barch on IR after he injured his ankle. … Atlanta forward Evander Kane sat out Saturday's game with a knee problem. … Likewise, Pittsburgh gave Evgeni Malkin the night off on Saturday. He's been battling a knee injury that has hampered his production and aggravated the problem on Thursday. Another Pittsburgh forward, Mike Comrie, has sat out the last two games with an undisclosed injury. … Edmonton forward Ales Hemsky will be out indefinitely with a groin injury. … Florida forward Christopher Higgins missed the last two games of the Panthers' Western trip with a foot infection, and Cory Stillman missed all three games with back spasms. Forward Radek Dvorak left Saturday's game after crashing head-first into the boards in the second period and didn't return. … San Jose defensemen Kent Huskins (undisclosed) and Niclas Wallin (leg) haven't played since being injured on Nov. 27. …

Returning -- Minnesota welcomed back center Pierre-Marc Bouchard on Wednesday after he missed more than a year with concussion-related problems. He hadn't played since opening night of the 2009-10 season. ... One night later, Boston center Marc Savard made his 2010-11 debut after missing nearly two months due to the lingering effects of a concussion he suffered in March. … Tampa Bay got a boost when forward Simon Gagne returned Tuesday and promptly scored the winning goal in overtime. He had missed 18 games with a neck injury. … Detroit goaltender Chris Osgood played Saturday, his first game since going down with a groin injury on Nov. 1. … The Islanders got two of their missing defensemen back last week. Andrew MacDonald (broken hand) returned Thursday; Jack Hillen (concussion) was back in the lineup on Friday. … Toronto goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere returned from a groin injury on Thursday. He missed two weeks. Center Colby Armstrong was back on Saturday following a 16-game absence due to a broken knuckle. … New Jersey captain Jamie Langenbrunner was back in the lineup on Thursday after missing three weeks with a neck injury. Defenseman Matthew Corrente also returned Thursday after missing two games with a shoulder problem. … Forward Drew Stafford returned for Buffalo on Friday from a shoulder injury that kept him out for almost a month. … Detroit center Kris Draper made his season debut Friday after being sidelined by abdominal surgery. … Colorado captain Adam Foote came back Friday following a three-game absence due to a leg injury. The Avs also reactivated starting goaltender Craig Anderson, who missed three games with a groin strain. … Columbus defenseman Mark Methot missed four games with an upper-body injury before returning Saturday. Forward Ethan Moreau returned Wednesday, five weeks after going down with a broken hand.

Still out -- Andrei Markov's season didn't last long. Montreal's No. 1 defenseman will undergo season-ending surgery on his right knee this week. He had played only seven games this season after returning from a knee injury suffered last spring before he was injured again last month. … Colorado center Peter Mueller hasn't played all season due to a concussion and reportedly will see a specialist this week. … Columbus forward Kristian Huselius is skating again but there's no timetable for his return from a high ankle sprain. … Rangers captain Chris Drury remains out with a broken finger; a CT scan last week revealed that it still hasn't healed. Forward Vaclav Prospal has started skating as he works to return from knee surgery. … Joffrey Lupul is back in Anaheim after three games in the AHL and is close to returning from back surgery and an infection that have combined to keep him out for a year. … San Jose forward Devin Setoguchi left the team in Montreal and headed home to have his upper body injury examined further. He's missed the Sharks' last four games. … Islanders forward Kyle Okposo skated in full equipment on Saturday -- the first time he's done so since undergoing preseason shoulder surgery. There's still no date set for his return. … Buffalo center Tim Connolly is skating again but has now missed five games with a groin injury.

The week ahead -- Things quiet down a little bit this week, with only six teams scheduled to play four games and an equal number having just two games.

Games to watch (Dec. 6-12):

San Jose at Detroit (Dec. 6) -- Versus will be on hand when the teams meet for the second time in a week -- the Wings return home from a California trip that included a 5-3 win at San Jose last Tuesday.

Buffalo at Boston (Dec. 7) -- Versus will also be at the TD Garden as the Sabres make their first visit since being eliminated there by the Bruins in the opening round of the playoffs last spring.

Montreal at Detroit (Dec. 10) -- Once upon a time, these Original Six rivals met 14 times a season. Now it's just once a season -- and the Canadiens are coming to Joe Louis Arena for the first tome in more than two years.

New York Rangers at Columbus (Dec. 11) -- The Rangers visit Nationwide Arena for the first time in two years and just the seventh since the Blue Jackets entered the NHL in 2000. They've scored just 13 goals in losing four of the first six.

Montreal at Toronto (Dec. 11) -- It's an old-time hockey weekend for the Canadiens, who follow a trip to Detroit with a visit to their oldest rival.

Tough week ahead:

Colorado Avalanche -- The Avs make the last three stops on their five-game tour of the Southeast Division with visits to Florida, Atlanta and Washington.

Minnesota Wild -- At least the Wild get to spend the week where it's warm -- they start with a visit to Phoenix and finish with games at Los Angeles and Anaheim.

Tampa Bay Lightning -- The Bolts, who made a pit stop at home on Saturday after games at Toronto and Boston, pack their bags for a week in Western Canada. They start in Calgary, move on to Edmonton and finish at Vancouver on Saturday night.

Easy week ahead:

Los Angeles Kings -- The Kings have a chance to rest up and practice -- they have just two games, both at home against a pair of struggling teams (Calgary and Minnesota).

Phoenix Coyotes -- The 'Yotes also get a chance to get some practice time. They're home for the week with just two games on the schedule, visits by Minnesota and Dallas.

St. Louis Blues -- One of the NHL's best home teams has both of its games this week at Scottrade Center, as Columbus and Carolina come to town. 
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