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Crosby not cutting corners in faceoff circle

Penguins captain draws on hard work, focus for his success

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- Here is the real story behind Sidney Crosby and his faceoff prowess: Toward the end of the Pittsburgh Penguins' practice Friday, Crosby and teammate Eric Fehr met at center ice. An assistant coach dropped pucks one after the other in rapid succession, and Crosby and Fehr resumed their ongoing competition.

They have been doing this most of the season: 14 pucks each time, more if needed to break a tie, keeping score to have fun and stay focused. Who won Friday? Who's leading overall? Fehr wouldn't say. What are the keys to Crosby's success? Fehr wouldn't get into that, either. But the work and attention to detail speak for themselves.

"I don't know if it's my job to give away any of his faceoff secrets," Fehr said. "We've been working on a lot of stuff throughout the year, and we've talked about different things and changing different approaches. But for the most part I'm there to kind of help him work."

Crosby drew up the play and won the faceoff that led to the winning goal Wednesday when the Penguins beat the San Jose Sharks 2-1 in overtime in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, taking a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. He won 17 of 24 faceoffs in the game, 71 percent, better than anyone else on the ice.

Sharks center Logan Couture was asked afterward why Crosby was so challenging on faceoffs.

Video: Couture addresses Crosby cheating on faceoffs comment

"He cheats," Couture said.

He cheats?

"He gets away with it," Couture said. "He's Sidney Crosby."

How does he cheat?

"He times them, and they don't kick him out for some reason, probably because of who he is," Couture said.

Couture's comments became a story that night, and they continued to be a story because this was the Stanley Cup Final, there were lots of media looking for stories, everyone traveled Thursday and the players weren't available for interviews again until Friday. Game 3 is at SAP Center on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"I have one good game in the faceoff circle, and all of a sudden I'm cheating on faceoffs," Crosby said with a smile Friday. "So probably not a coincidence there."

Does Crosby cheat on faceoffs? Of course he does, in the sense that every center tries to gain whatever advantage he can.

Basically the rulebook says each center must have his feet within the markings, his shoulders square to his opponents' end of the rink and his blade on the ice. The defensive player must put his stick in the designated white area first, followed immediately by the attacking player, except at center ice, where the visiting player must put down his stick first.

Centers move their feet, lean their bodies and lift their sticks as the official drops the puck or before. Happens all the time. Happens in split-seconds every time. If someone gets an unfair advantage, the official can kick him out of the circle.

"Everyone cheats on faceoffs," Couture said Friday. "I cheat. [Sharks center Joe Thornton] cheats. That's how you try and win draws. [Crosby is] one of the best at it, and he wins a lot of faceoffs."

Video: Faceoff follies take center stage in Game 2

Said Crosby: "I think we're all doing the same thing in the faceoff circle. I don't think anyone's found a habit or a tendency that someone else doesn't do."

But is Crosby really one of the best at it? Does he do anything more than anyone else does to get an edge? And most important of all: Does he get preferential treatment because of who he is?

It has been well-documented that Crosby had to work hard to improve on faceoffs, and he still isn't one of the best in the NHL. Among players who took at least 1,000 faceoffs during the regular season, a good sample size, he ranked 23rd out of 53 at 51.7 percent. Among players who have taken at least 100 draws in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a good sample size considering there are fewer games and players, he ranks 15th out of 40 at 52.7 percent. He's good, not great.

Crosby subtly made the point that he can't go too far to get an edge because he can't afford to get kicked out of the faceoff circle. He plays on a line with left wing Conor Sheary and right wing Patrick Hornqvist.

"I try to go for quickness more than strength," Crosby said. "I try not to move too much, just because the more you move your stick back, the more time it takes to get it to go forward. Kind of, the less movement there is, the better. I don't necessarily have another center on the line that can go in if I'm doing other things, so I just try to keep it simple."

As far as preferential treatment, the Penguins couldn't disagree more, on faceoffs or anything else. Thornton knocked off Crosby's helmet and cross-checked him in the back in the third period of Game 2, and Crosby skated away. No penalty.

Video: Crosby talks to reporters after practice in San Jose

"To be completely honest, I think he's one of the more fair guys out there [on faceoffs]," said Fehr, who signed with the Penguins in July 2015 after playing 10 NHL seasons elsewhere, nine for the Washington Capitals. "I mean, his feet are never on either side of the arcs. He stays on his side. He puts his stick down pretty early too. It may seem more biased now because I'm on his team, but even playing against him, I never really thought he cheated.

"Tell me the last time you saw him take a swing and then the ref had to [say], 'Whoa, whoa. Let's re-set up.' It doesn't happen. I mean, there's guys where five, six times a game they're jumping and everyone has to go back. It hasn't happened like that all year, I don't think."

Won't opponents say that's because of preferential treatment? Because he's Sidney Crosby?

Fehr laughed.

"I'm not going to get into the argument," Fehr said. "I think that's the craziest thing ever."

Bottom line: Couture was asked a question after a loss, and he gave a raw, honest answer about how he felt. He insisted Friday he wasn't trying to send a message to the officials. Whether he was or he wasn't, Crosby doesn't care.

"You can watch," Crosby said. "I can't hide it. If I'm doing it, you'll see it."

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