PITTSBURGH -- Nobody told Sidney Crosby that the calendar has turned.
After dominating November with a 26-point outburst, Crosby picked up right where he left off in Pittsburgh's first December game, a 3-2 victory against Atlanta on Thursday night at Consol Energy Center. Crosby had a natural hat trick -- his second three-goal game in a three-goal span -- with three varied but still spectacular, goals. As a result, he reached the 20-goal mark in a season faster than any other time in his career.
"I shouldn't be surprised, but I did shake my head on a couple of those goals," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after his team won its eighth game in a row to take over the Atlantic Division lead, leapfrogging past idle Philadelphia.
Crosby scored a career-best 51 goals last season -- sharing the Rocket Richard Trophy with Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay -- but had just 15 after 27 games. This season, he has 21 goals in his first 27 games, once again tied for the League's goal-scoring title with Stamkos. Crosby's 44 points are the tops in the League.
Numbers like that have some people suggesting that Crosby is playing the best hockey of what has already been an accolade-filled career that has yet to reach the 400-game mark. He will do that Monday here against the New Jersey Devils. So is he?
Crosby wasn't quite ready to go there Thursday night.
"You try not to think about the points," said Crosby, who has 29 points in his past 14 games. "You try to evaluate your game, no matter how they are going. The team has been playing well and as a line we have been clicking. I think it is just a combination of that."
But others are not so shy about voicing such an opinion.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik has been with the Penguins since Crosby arrived on the scene in 2005. He has seen Crosby transform from a prodigy to, arguably, the game's most complete player. Yet he said he has never seen Crosby play at the level he is now.
"It's probably the best I have seen him play in his career -- points aside," said Orpik, who got a surprise assist when Crosby, going against the play, tipped his wide and high slapper from the point past a shocked Ondrej Pavelec to complete the hat trick -- the first natural trick among the seven he has accumulated in his career -- midway through the second period.
"That's as good a tip as you will see," Orpik said, shaking his head as he replayed the sequence in his mind.
While the points Crosby is piling up are nice, Orpik says it all the other things Crosby does that make him so dangerous. He talked about the fact that Crosby takes every key faceoff for the team (he went 12-9 in the circle Thursday night) and has committed himself to playing in the defensive zone, as evidenced by two takeaways he had in the game.
"He scored three goals in three different ways," said Maxime Talbot, who had a huge blocked shot on Dustin Byfuglien late in the third to preserve the one-goal lead. "He works hard for the goals and because of that he creates his luck. It's all hard by him in trying to lead this club."
Crosby's final goal came on the tip of Orpik's shot, but his other two goals might have been even more special.
On the first, which erased Atlanta's 1-0 lead, Crosby settled a bouncing rebound and calmly shoveled it under the crossbar before an Atlanta defender could close on him. Then, 4:24 into the second period, Crosby was hoping onto the ice for a shift change when Arron Asham blocked an Atlanta shot and fed the puck to Crosby all alone in the neutral zone. Crosby made no mistake on the breakaway, make a nice move to get to his backhand and then tucking the puck into the smallest of five-hole openings.
"I'm fortunate to be hanging back behind the 'D,' Ash makes a great pass," Crosby said." That's just the way it goes. We worked hard and created some good chances."
The Penguins needed every one of Crosby's goals to quell the red-hot Thrashers, who had won six in a row entering Thursday's game.
Bryan Little and Nik Antropov scored the goals for Atlanta, which received 25 saves from Pavelec. Little's game-opening goal ended a streak of 30 successful penalty kills by the Penguins that stretched across nine games, tying a franchise record.
Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had 20 saves for Pittsburgh and is now 9-0-1 in his past 10 starts.
Atlanta did not go down without a fight. The Thrashers got a goal by Antropov late in the second period and pressed the play late in the third, forcing a rejuvenated Fleury to make at least three game-saving stops in the final minutes. But in the end, the brilliance of Crosby proved to be too much, dooming Atlanta to its first loss since dropping a 2-1 decision to Florida on Nov. 17.
During the six-game winning streak, the Thrashers never allowed more than two goals and held opponents to one goal or fewer five times. In just 30 minutes and 18 seconds Thursday night, Crosby put up more goals by himself than any of those teams could manage.
"The boy's special," Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay said. "Of course, everyone knows that. When players like that get on a roll, it's scary to play against them. When the puck bounces and they get it, they make good things happen.
"Nothing he does surprises us. The boy is a special player."