SIDNEY CROSBY is sick. He sits in a straight-backed chair in a Toronto hotel lobby, dressed in a gray ski cap, blue topcoat and a gray pinstripe suit that set off a skin so translucent he looks like an apparition. The Pittsburgh Penguins' captain hopes he will have the energy to drag himself onto the ice for a game against the Maple Leafs the next night, but his pallor suggests the only C in his immediate future should be the vitamin. "The flu, I guess," Crosby says in a low tone. "I've had the flu before, but it hasn't seemed this bad." � There are all kinds of nasty things going around the Penguins, who regularly have had their temperature taken by a hockey world shocked by their middling play. After allowing five third-period goals in a humiliating 6--2 loss last Saturday against stumbling Toronto—Crosby played but was on the ice for three even-strength Leafs goals in his nearly 20 minutes—Pittsburgh, a Stanley Cup finalist eight months ago, was 10th in the Eastern Conference. And while the Penguins stood only five points out of the final playoff spot, they looked like a ghostly imitation of the dashing young team that seemed capable of putting together a string of Cups like the Oilers of the 1980s.
"There should be," defenseman Ryan Whitney says when asked if there is fear that the Penguins will miss the playoffs, "and that might be good. I think the whole time 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's building 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 have Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin, but it doesn't matter who you've got if you're getting outworked. When you see one or two guys carrying the load, a team generally ends up struggling. You need other guys to score, which we had last year."
The most common diagnosis for Pittsburgh's woes is this critical case of imbalance. The Penguins suffer from Big Two and the Little 18, the type of chasm between elite players 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 was fired the next day—and replaced on an interim basis by Dan Bylsma—the Penguins have history on their side: Malkin and Crosby were one-two in the league with 81 and 72 points, respectively, and no team since the 1948--49 Blackhawks has had the two top scorers and missed the playoffs. Then again, Pittsburgh doesn't have Marian Hossa on its side. "Last year, when [ Therrien] used Crosby and Malkin 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 lines isn't the same." General manager Ray Shero offered Hossa, acquired at the 2008 trade deadline, $7 million annually for five, six or seven years, his choice, but the forward skipped to Detroit last July for one year at $7.45 million. Instead of Hossa and big-bodied Ryan Malone (who signed with the Lightning), Shero plugged the holes short-term with Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko, two wingers past their expiration date.
The other popular diagnosis of the Penguins' problem is a dislocated shoulder—precisely, the left one of Sergei Gonchar. After sustaining the injury in the preseason opener, the defenseman finally returned on Saturday, playing 20 minutes but making little impact. He is supposed to breathe life into a power play that clicked once every five times or so last year—Gonchar led defensemen with power-play points with 46—but is mired in the bottom third of the league this season with a 16.1% success rate.
Those explanations are both valid and facile, telling all but saying nothing. There never was going to be a viable replacement for Hossa—dynamic forwards with speed, hands, determination and willingness to backcheck are just too rare—and the loss of a Manning-like power play quarterback obviously was going to hurt the power play. But do not be a party to the pity. The Penguins were averaging 2.93 goals a game through 57 matches, their exact average of last season. And the injuries to Gonchar and Whitney (reconstructive foot surgery that forced him to miss the first 33 games) were not necessarily critical, because all good teams muddle through injuries to key personnel. Last year the Penguins missed Crosby and No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andr� Fleury simultaneously for six weeks during the heart of the season.
The final 25 games of the season—and Pittsburgh figures to need 17 or 18 wins to qualify for the playoffs—will be about the peripatetic Fleury finding consistency, Gonchar's reintegrating himself into the power play, and the penalty-killing escaping the bottom half of the NHL. But like everything in Pittsburgh, and indeed the league, this really will be about the guy with the stuffed sinuses and watering eyes. Crosby plays at a higher level and holds himself to a higher standard than almost anyone in the NHL, and the next eight weeks will be a referendum 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 a 20-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 neck and 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 minor league scorer, once managed 40 goals. Of course, Young had help—a rookie center named Mario Lemieux. Just as Wayne Gretzky nudged the eminently mortal Blair MacDonald 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 every second game, in 1984--85. In Young's subsequent 136 NHL matches, his winning lottery ticket long cashed, he averaged a goal every fifth game.
Crosby has yet to produce a Warren Young Effect, not having coaxed a megaseason out of any linemate. And goodness knows he has had enough of them. From Andy Hilbert to Colby Armstrong to current nine-goal sidekicks Tyler Kennedy (who joined the trio this month) and Pascal Dupuis (the regular leftwinger who hasn't scored in 2009), Crosby has burned through linemates the way Spinal Tap went through drummers. Several others have auditioned—among them Fedotenko and Petr Sykora—but almost everyone seems more compatible with Malkin, which is counterintuitive given that Crosby is a superior passer and less of a one-on-one virtuoso. Indeed Crosby, whose career high is 39 goals, dishes the puck too freely. "Their game in Montreal [on Feb. 3], he was in front of the net, maybe 25 feet out, with a shooting lane, and he passed to the wing," says one NHL pro scout. "Couldn't have had a better shooting angle." Crosby agrees he can be overly generous but says, "You can't change your instincts. There are times that I make passes, and sometimes it's a pride thing. Not every guy can make certain passes, and I feel like I can. So I try. Whether they go in [the net], that's to be decided."
"I wouldn't say 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 too bad, but he's a superstar, and last year he found a guy [Hossa] to play with who's a superstar. You see him and Malkin together, and well, there's Sid again. But when he's playing with guys who are good NHL players but not quite on his level ... guys get a little nervous."