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Penguins star Crosby back to being the best

by Chris Adamski

PITTSBURGH -- He's averaging a point-and-a-half per game, is a point off the National Hockey League scoring lead, and is tied with a linemate for the League's best plus-minus among forwards.

Best of all for Sidney Crosby, he hasn't so much as missed a period due to injury through exactly one month of the Pittsburgh Penguins' season.

Crosby is looking like the old Sid the Kid. Limited to 22 regular-season games over a two-year span until this season began last month, the former Art Ross and Hart trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion is resembling the player who was the consensus world's best not long ago.


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The scary part for the rest of the League? Crosby believes he hasn't yet found his pre-injury form.

"Still getting sharper," Crosby said when asked to assess his game. "As far as just being comfortable in games, I think it's pretty much there. I feel like timing and stuff is there a lot more than it has been, so that's nice.

"But I think everything else can still kind of improve. But how many games have we played, 16? It's still a process."

What other player "can still kind of improve" on being the NHL leader in assists with 17, on trailing only Buffalo Sabres forward Thomas Vanek in points with 24, and on captaining the Penguins to first place in the Eastern Conference heading into Tuesday night's games?

"He's the best player in the game," said linemate Pascal Dupuis, before adding a qualifier. "Well, him and Geno (teammate and reigning Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin). When they're both healthy, both going, they're 1A and 1B; I don't know who's who.

"But with Sid, it's one of those things when you have a top player like that and he's away from the game. It's a game that needs a lot of timing, lots of practice, lots of repetitions. And he seems to have found his groove. Obviously, you can tell that he's feeling much better."

Crosby has more three-point games this season (five) than games in which he was held off the scoresheet (four). Each of those three-point efforts has come during February, meaning he has at least three points in a game more often than not in the nine games he's played this month.

He'll look to add to that when the Penguins face the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday Night Rivalry presented by Coors Light (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Crosby's play is reminiscent of where the 25-year-old was before hits during consecutive games Jan. 1 and 5, 2011, kept him out for the remainder of that season and for all but eight games during the first five months 2011-12. Add in the lockout that delayed the start of this season until Jan. 19, and that's not much hockey for a man who loves the game as much as Crosby does.

"You crave competing, and we're obviously playing as many games as we are (in a short period of time), so I think everyone's kind of in the swing of things now," Crosby said.

"I think you just appreciate ... just going out there and playing. If anything, you just kind of get more appreciation for playing and enjoy competing."

Arguably, Crosby was at his best -- and that's saying something -- just before his injury struck. During calendar year 2010, Crosby played in 80 regular-season games, two short of a full regular season. In those 80 games, he put up 60 goals and 66 assists for 126 points.

If they had encompassed one regular season, those numbers would have won him all but one of the 13 Rocket Richard trophies that have been awarded and every Art Ross Trophy since 2000.

Sidney Crosby
Center - PIT
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 17 | PTS: 24
SOG: 61 | +/-: 11

This season, Crosby is .075 points per game off that 2010 pace.

"Just to sit back and realize he missed that much time and has come back to play this well?" said linemate Chris Kunitz said, who like Crosby is plus-11. "He's definitely our leader -- he comes out and plays every shift, he scores big goals, he makes unbelievable plays. It's definitely a lot of fun to be out there watching."

Penguins defenseman Kris Letang interrupted a reporter while being asked if Crosby was back to being the best player in the game.

"He's always been to me," Letang said. "Even when he just came back from his injury or at any time, he's the best player to me. Just the way he sees the ice, the way he skates, things he is able to do on the ice is pretty amazing."

Famously superstitious, Crosby avoids commenting about his health. In a contact sport in which any shift can conceivably be the final one of the season because of something more innocuous such as a knee or shoulder injury, many Penguins fans hold their breath when, say, Crosby is facing the boards and an opponent comes to finish a check on him.

Teammates concede they initially felt that way, too, when their captain first returned following the lengthy layoff.


"It's gone," Dupuis said. "Completely gone. ... It's behind him."

"I don't even really think about it anymore," Kunitz said.

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said the 2010 version of Crosby -- in no small part because of his consistency -- was playing at "maybe the highest level of his career."

Bylsma has noticed very real signs that Crosby's game is similar this season.

"It's not just one amazing play that you look at and say, 'This guy's playing at a high level,'" Bylsma said. "It's night after night after game after game that he's playing well. It's not just a highlight reel -- it's his full game. Just the details and what you see night in and night out and the effort level is the amazing part about him.

"That consistency was there in 2010, and it's going to continue now."

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