BY JOHN MACKINNON, EDMONTON JOURNAL
January 9, 2014
EDMONTON - Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins are a focused, motivated, eyes-on-the-prize bunch, but they pull this off while also being a relaxed, happy, smell-the-roses cast of characters.
It’s not hard to see why.
The detail-oriented Crosby, a hockey grandmaster at 26, sits comfortably atop the NHL scoring race with 65 points on 24 goals and 41 assists, while the injury depleted Penguins have fashioned a 32-12-1 won-lost record, also worth 65 points, tops in the Eastern Conference.
They landed in Edmonton having won eight of their last 10 games, their roster freighted with newly confirmed Olympians, including Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin.
Crosby and his mates were a happy bunch at practice on Thursday afternoon, ripping through a creative, uptempo practice punctuated by head coach Dan Bylsma periodically scraping the ice and, at one point, lying down on it as an outsized human pylon for his skaters to navigate around.
“We probably don’t even notice (such things),” Crosby said during one of two scrums with reporters. “Probably we don’t really see most of it anymore because we’ve seen most of the same things over and over again.
“He’s pretty energetic. He’s got a positive attitude, he kind of brings energy out on the ice. I think the main thing with him is he usually brings that no matter what the scenario is.
“We could have a tough loss the night before and he’s usually bringing that same energy, same excitement. He knows when he needs to be serious. But ... I think he wants the guys to have a little energy and have fun out there, too. And have fun working hard.”
As the face of the Penguins franchise, not to mention the NHL and Team Canada as it sets to defend the Olympic gold medal it won in 2010 in Vancouver, Crosby’s work shifts include handling a media crush, particularly in every Canadian city the Penguins’ visit, and infrequent trips they are.
He handled that task with patience, grace and humour Thursday.
This season, for the first time in his NHL career. Crosby will visit all 29 other NHL cities, for example.
“Yeah, it’s weird,” Crosby said. “It’s nice, though. It’s great to get to different buildings, preparing for different teams and seeing different things, playing against different guys.
“I like seeing (Boston defenceman Zdeno) Chara once in a while, but I don’t need to see him four times a year. It’s good to get some different matchups.”
Crosby has only played five games against the Oilers in his career so far, partly a function of the schedule, partly his own absences from the game owing to injury, but he said all the right things about the Oilers when prompted with the inevitable comparisons between two franchises that have gone through a radical rebuild.
Unhappily, the comparison of their rebuild with that fashioned by the Penguins only extends so far.
“It was fairly quick,” Crosby said of the turnaround in Pittsburgh, which was propelled by the drafting of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003, Malkin in ‘04 and Crosby in ‘05. “I think we finished second-last my first year, and then we made the playoffs my second year. The third year we made it to the (Stanley Cup) final.”
Oilers fans, sadly, are well-schooled in the selecting of top draft choices, but not in the rapid rise to the league’s top echelon. The Penguins lost to Detroit in the 2007-08 Cup final, then beat the Red Wings to win the Cup in ‘08-09. Clearly, they’d like to get back to the final and bring the Cup back to Pittsburgh.
Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle now are in their fourth seasons and have not made the playoffs. Sam Gagner is in his seventh and has no playoff experience with the Oilers.
“We were able to gain some experience pretty quickly,” Crosby said. “Like the guys in Edmonton here, they’re thrown into some pretty important roles right away at a pretty young age so, I think that helps everybody.
“That’s going to fast-track the learning curve. I don’t think they’re far away at all. I think they’ve got a ton of skill. From playing against them, they’ve always come pretty hard at us.
“I know that they’ve got a lot of skill and speed, and I think you just have to be patient when everybody’s young. But at some point, when everything starts to click, they’re going to be good for a long time.”
The “at some point” part has begun to really grate on long-suffering Oilers fans, who are tired of empty promises of greatness at some vague time in the foggy future.
Interestingly, Crosby’s take on his own growth as a player provides lessons for the likes of Hall, Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Schultz.
“I remember that Mike Therrien (current Montreal Canadiens and former Penguins’ head coach) was pretty persistent about us younger guys, (Malkin) and (Jordan Staal) about being really responsible both ways,” Crosby said. “I think as a young guy, at the time, you might not realize how important it is, but as you get older you realize it’s really important and you can’t just turn it on like a switch when you want to. It’s kind of got to be instilled.
“I think (there’s) a continuation with Dan and the way he coaches, and what he expects, especially of centremen and playing 200 feet. So, yeah I think it’s kind of been a gradual thing.”
The Oilers young talents have been gradually exposed to the same principles of responsible hockey by Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger and now rookie NHL head coach Dallas Eakins. If the learning curve is being fast-tracked, it is not apparent to most Edmonton hockey observers. Not at all.
By the way, along with a gaggle of schoolkids, some friends and family, and a larger-than-usual media contingent for a visiting team, Eakins himself took a seat and watched the Penguins practice on Thursday afternoon.
He should have brought several of his players, as well. This was a seminar in excellence, in every way.
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