SIDNEY CROSBY issick. He sits in a straight-backed chair in a Toronto hotel lobby, dressed in agray ski cap, blue topcoat and a gray pinstripe suit that set off a skin sotranslucent he looks like an apparition. The Pittsburgh Penguins' captain hopeshe will have the energy to drag himself onto the ice for a game against theMaple Leafs the next night, but his pallor suggests the only C in his immediatefuture should be the vitamin. "The flu, I guess," Crosby says in a lowtone. "I've had the flu before, but it hasn't seemed this bad." ¬∂ Thereare all kinds of nasty things going around the Penguins, who regularly have hadtheir temperature taken by a hockey world shocked by their middling play. Afterallowing five third-period goals in a humiliating 6--2 loss last Saturdayagainst stumbling Toronto—Crosby played but was on the ice for threeeven-strength Leafs goals in his nearly 20 minutes—Pittsburgh, a Stanley Cupfinalist eight months ago, was 10th in the Eastern Conference. And while thePenguins stood only five points out of the final playoff spot, they looked likea ghostly imitation of the dashing young team that seemed capable of puttingtogether a string of Cups like the Oilers of the 1980s.
"There shouldbe," defenseman Ryan Whitney says when asked if there is fear that thePenguins will miss the playoffs, "and that might be good. I think the wholetime we've been thinking, Aw, we'll get in. Now we're thinking, Holy crap,we've got to get in. Last year we were used to going into another team'sbuilding and winning. Down by a goal going into the third, we knew we'd win.All the things that came so easy are so difficult now.
"Sure we haveCrosby and [Evgeni] Malkin, but it doesn't matter who you've got if you'regetting outworked. When you see one or two guys carrying the load, a teamgenerally ends up struggling. You need other guys to score, which we had lastyear."
The most commondiagnosis for Pittsburgh's woes is this critical case of imbalance. ThePenguins suffer from Big Two and the Little 18, the type of chasm between eliteplayers and the rest of the roster that has also defined Tampa Bay and Ottawa.Even after a performance in Toronto so timid that coach Michel Therrien wasfired the next day—and replaced on an interim basis by Dan Bylsma—the Penguinshave history on their side: Malkin and Crosby were one-two in the league with81 and 72 points, respectively, and no team since the 1948--49 Blackhawks hashad the two top scorers and missed the playoffs. Then again, Pittsburgh doesn'thave Marian Hossa on its side. "Last year, when [Therrien] used Crosby andMalkin together late in games to lock it down, he had players behind them,"one NHL coach says. "Now when he does that, the talent on the other linesisn't the same." General manager Ray Shero offered Hossa, acquired at the2008 trade deadline, $7 million annually for five, six or seven years, hischoice, but the forward skipped to Detroit last July for one year at $7.45million. Instead of Hossa and big-bodied Ryan Malone (who signed with theLightning), Shero plugged the holes short-term with Miroslav Satan and RuslanFedotenko, two wingers past their expiration date.
The other populardiagnosis of the Penguins' problem is a dislocated shoulder—precisely, the leftone of Sergei Gonchar. After sustaining the injury in the preseason opener, thedefenseman finally returned on Saturday, playing 20 minutes but making littleimpact. He is supposed to breathe life into a power play that clicked onceevery five times or so last year—Gonchar led defensemen with power-play pointswith 46—but is mired in the bottom third of the league this season with a 16.1%success rate.
Thoseexplanations are both valid and facile, telling all but saying nothing. Therenever was going to be a viable replacement for Hossa—dynamic forwards withspeed, hands, determination and willingness to backcheck are just too rare—andthe loss of a Manning-like power play quarterback obviously was going to hurtthe power play. But do not be a party to the pity. The Penguins were averaging2.93 goals a game through 57 matches, their exact average of last season. Andthe injuries to Gonchar and Whitney (reconstructive foot surgery that forcedhim to miss the first 33 games) were not necessarily critical, because all goodteams muddle through injuries to key personnel. Last year the Penguins missedCrosby and No. 1 goaltender Marc-André Fleury simultaneously for six weeksduring the heart of the season.
The final 25games of the season—and Pittsburgh figures to need 17 or 18 wins to qualify forthe playoffs—will be about the peripatetic Fleury finding consistency,Gonchar's reintegrating himself into the power play, and the penalty-killingescaping the bottom half of the NHL. But like everything in Pittsburgh, andindeed the league, this really will be about the guy with the stuffed sinusesand watering eyes. Crosby plays at a higher level and holds himself to a higherstandard than almost anyone in the NHL, and the next eight weeks will be areferendum on his excellence. True, he had 102 points as a rookie in 2005--06.Yes, he was MVP and scoring champion in his second season. And last year as a20-year-old, while Malkin vanished deep in the playoffs more utterly than D.B.Cooper, Crosby's indomitable play carried the Penguins to Game 6 of the final.For his next trick he has to take one of his wingers by the scruff of his neckand turn him into Warren Young.
WARREN YOUNG.Remember him? They do in Pittsburgh. Shrouded in the mists of the Penguins'checkered history, the lanky winger, a creditable if not overwhelming minorleague scorer, once managed 40 goals. Of course, Young had help—a rookie centernamed Mario Lemieux. Just as Wayne Gretzky nudged the eminently mortal BlairMacDonald to a career-high 46 goals in Gretzky's first NHL season in Edmonton,Lemieux, now the Penguins' owner, spoon-fed Young for a slick 40, a goal everysecond game, in 1984--85. In Young's subsequent 136 NHL matches, his winninglottery ticket long cashed, he averaged a goal every fifth game.
Crosby has yet toproduce a Warren Young Effect, not having coaxed a megaseason out of anylinemate. And goodness knows he has had enough of them. From Andy Hilbert toColby Armstrong to current nine-goal sidekicks Tyler Kennedy (who joined thetrio this month) and Pascal Dupuis (the regular leftwinger who hasn't scored in2009), Crosby has burned through linemates the way Spinal Tap went throughdrummers. Several others have auditioned—among them Fedotenko and PetrSykora—but almost everyone seems more compatible with Malkin, which iscounterintuitive given that Crosby is a superior passer and less of aone-on-one virtuoso. Indeed Crosby, whose career high is 39 goals, dishes thepuck too freely. "Their game in Montreal [on Feb. 3], he was in front ofthe net, maybe 25 feet out, with a shooting lane, and he passed to thewing," says one NHL pro scout. "Couldn't have had a better shootingangle." Crosby agrees he can be overly generous but says, "You can'tchange your instincts. There are times that I make passes, and sometimes it's apride thing. Not every guy can make certain passes, and I feel like I can. So Itry. Whether they go in [the net], that's to be decided."
"I wouldn'tsay it's a struggle playing with him," says Whitney, the defenseman,"but Sid sees plays happening one or two steps ahead, and other guys don't.It can frustrate him. I don't think by any means he gets on his linemates toobad, but he's a superstar, and last year he found a guy [Hossa] to play withwho's a superstar. You see him and Malkin together, and well, there's Sidagain. But when he's playing with guys who are good NHL players but not quiteon his level ... guys get a little nervous."
Unlike Lemieuxand Gretzky, who slowed the game to their whims, Crosby is a wi-fi centerobliged to carry some dial-up linemates. Crosby plays quickly. He bursts fromhis own zone as if he has been launched. If his wingers can't smartly hit hisstick with a pass, or if they don't have the speed to get to the net for therebounds, Crosby's conspicuous efforts can be wasted. "With Sid,"Dupuis says, "you can't be asleep for a second." Dupuis has speed butflinty hands. Kennedy has the moxie to chase rebounds when Crosby storms thenet, but his size (listed as 5'11", 183 pounds) is better suited to beingFrodo's wingman than Crosby's.
Shero says thatadversity is simply part of the learning curve for an organization coping withthe exigencies of the salary cap. Pittsburgh has been built around the middleof the ice, with Fleury, centers Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal and defensemenBrooks Orpik and Whitney signed to long-term deals. "These are good kidswho do care," Shero says. "With their talent level and game experience,I suspect they'll be fine."
Between shiversCrosby says, "We'll see what we're made of down the stretch," aself-directed challenge. Just as the young Eric Lindros didn't have to skatewith his head up through the neutral zone, Crosby, who ultimately will bejudged not merely by his goals and points but by those around him, hasn't hadto nudge his teammates several rungs up the talent ladder. Until now. Sid theKid will not be forever young, but at age 21, it is time to create a WarrenYoung.
"The whole time we've been thinking, Aw, we'll getinto the playoffs. Now we're thinking, HOLY CRAP, WE'VE GOT TO GET IN."
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Michael Farber goes blue line to blue line, weighing in on the firing ofMichael Therrien and other issues across the NHL.
Photograph by Fred Vuich
LOST ART Crosby's creativity isn't in question; his teammates' inability to keep up with him, however, remains a mystery.
GENE J. PUSKAR/AP
¬†TWOGOOD The fired Therrien leaned too heavily on Crosby and Malkin (left), whoaccount for 33% of Pittsburgh's points.
HELP WANTED Gonchar's return to the ice should bolster a power play that has dramatically fallen off since last season.