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Alone At the Top
May 10, 2010
In the last year, Sidney Crosby has won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal and surpassed his biggest rival. But at 22, the world's best player is just getting started
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May 10, 2010

Alone At The Top

In the last year, Sidney Crosby has won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal and surpassed his biggest rival. But at 22, the world's best player is just getting started

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Sidney Crosby loves to fish. Almost every summer evening he drops a line into Grand Lake, in a sylvan setting 40 minutes from his boyhood home in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. Crosby enjoys the solitude as much as the fishing, which is hardly surprising for a Canadian idol. In his country, hockey heroes are caught but never released. The bass and pickerel are among the few creatures north of the 49th parallel that don't have the faintest idea who he is.

"He can be out there for hours," says his father, Troy Crosby, "and not catch a thing." The fishing on the lake is spotty in summer. If Sidney wants to land, say, a big striper, he should be out on the lake or casting off his dock right now. But as is his custom, he is professionally engaged at the moment. When they reach Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against Montreal on Thursday, the Penguins, tied with the Canadiens at a game apiece after a 3--1 loss at home on Sunday, will play their 300th match of the past three seasons. This is shaping up to be another extended Pittsburgh spring. Like a vain man's 39th birthday, the conference final is an annual event for the Penguins.

The primary reason for this, of course, is Crosby. Since he and Alexander Ovechkin entered the NHL together in 2005--06, the question has been: Who's better, Sid or Ovie? The answer, until further notice, arrived last week when Crosby took a commanding lead in playoff scoring, while Ovechkin failed to carry Washington past the upstart Canadiens. (The astonishing loss by the Presidents' Trophy winners—who frittered away a 3--1 series lead—was due not to a failure of will by Ovechkin but to a lack of imagination: Crosby's grand rival and measuring stick repeatedly scooted into the offensive zone, then swerved into the middle to look for a shot. He never seemed to consider driving wide to generate offense.)

While the Capitals sorted through the day-after wreckage last Thursday, Crosby joined teammates Jay McKee, Jordan Staal and Max Talbot for a postpractice round of miniature golf. "Who won?" Talbot repeats. "Sid." He pauses. "Obviously."

"Best player in the world? Yeah," Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges said of Crosby on the eve of the series, and he wasn't referring to putt-putt golf. "[Crosby and Ovechkin] are both really good, but Crosby's better at using the players around him. Great vision. Not only can he score, like he proved this year"—his 51 goals tied for the NHL regular-season lead—"but he passes the puck better than anybody. He makes plays: behind his back, drop passes. You sit in the stands, and you don't even see the possibilities. You wonder how he sees them. As a defenseman you try to force him to make plays he doesn't want to make. If you allow him to make the plays he wants, he'll burn you."

The Canadiens were the Crosby family team. Montreal drafted Troy, a goaltender, in the 12th round in 1984. Sidney ... well, he adored the bleu, blanc et rouge like so many other kids in the Maritime Provinces. In his bedroom hung not only a poster of Mario Lemieux but also one of Canadiens captain Kirk Muller. ("When my daughters heard that," says Muller, now a Montreal assistant coach, "it raised their opinion of Dad.") Sidney's room was also decorated with Canadiens-themed wallpaper.

The only thing that has changed is that now Crosby wallpapers Canadiens. Fifteen minutes into Game 1 last Friday he ran over Gorges, who 24 hours earlier had been worried about being burned when he should have been concerned about being flattened. This was a fair fight: Crosby, 5'11" and 200 pounds, is two inches shorter but only two pounds lighter than Gorges.

And so Crosby said an emphatic hello to the second round. During Pittsburgh's systematic 6--3 win he would pickpocket Montreal center Scott Gomez along the boards and set up Kris Letang for a goal; make a surgical cross-seam pass to Alex Goligoski for another of Pittsburgh's four power-play scores; and engage in an unpenalized cross-checking duel with former Penguin Hal Gill, a big galoot of a defenseman who has eight inches and 50 pounds on him. Crosby also suffered a nasty gash on his chin, courtesy of an inadvertent high stick from Dominic Moore in the second period, but given some fancy needlepoint and the benefit of two television timeouts, he missed no more than five minutes on the game clock. "Give some credit to [the doctors]," said Crosby, whose wound, amid tufts of a struggling playoff beard, only slightly compromised the boyishness of his boy-band mug. "I think there were two of them."

The summary: three hits, one blocked shot, two assists and an unspecified number of stitches in 21:08. (When pressed for the number of sutures, Crosby said he had no idea. Hockey players always say that.) Although he was held without a point in Game 2, he ended the weekend with a playoff average of 2.0 points per game. If the Penguins go deep in four series and Crosby maintains a similar pace, he could break Wayne Gretzky's playoff record of 47 points, set in the giddy 1984--85 season, in which the goals-per-game season average was 7.77 compared with the slender 5.53 of 2009--10.

Crosby's points are less achievements than signposts en route to perhaps another championship. Last June he became the youngest captain of a Cup winner. Now he can win his second trophy before the age of 23. (Gretzky was 24 when he won the second of his four Cups.) Like a classic type A personality Crosby, who has also won an MVP and a scoring title, keeps scratching off items on his virtual to-do list.

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