PITTSBURGH – With the exception of the Stanley Cup final, this is about as big a showcase as the NHL could give Sidney Crosby so early in his playoff career.
Sid the Kid on Broadway. The league must be loving this.
OK, so the NHL missed out on a second-round Capitals versus Penguins playoffs matchup that would put arguably its three best players – Alex Ovechkin, Crosby and Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin – on the same sheet of ice for up to two weeks.
As consolation prizes go, this is a pretty good one: Crosby and his kiddie corps Penguins against the New York Rangers, an Original Six team located in the sport’s biggest media market and led by longtime star Jaromir Jagr.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals will be Friday night in Pittsburgh, followed by Game 2 on Sunday and Games 3 and 4 next Tuesday and Thursday in Madison Square Garden, where the Penguins were 0-3-1 this season.
Maybe the series won’t bump Isiah Thomas or the Yankees off the back page of the New York tabloids, but it’s an opportunity for the league to show off its best-known player on a major-league stage.
“There’s a lot of excitement built up around here,” Crosby said Wednesday.
A lot of nervous anticipation in Pittsburgh, too, where the fans know this series figures to be much more competitive, much more of a grind, than that lightning-fast four-game sweep of Ottawa that ended more than a week ago.
In his three NHL seasons, the 20-year-old Crosby has never played in a post-season series anywhere other than Ottawa or Pittsburgh, so this will be a major upgrade in media attention and the pressure than can accompany it. Even for a player who’s known such attention since, oh, the age of 13.
“I kind of thought maybe the Ovechkin-Crosby matchup would have been something the league was going for but, in the end, Pittsburgh and New York is a pretty good matchup as well,” Rangers forward Brendan Shanahan said.
Consider this: on the same weekend the NFL will be showing off some of its future stars at the draft in New York, a player younger than most of those college players may be learning if he’s ready to win a championship with his career still in its infancy.
“I’ve always heard that age is just a number,” said Crosby, last season’s scoring champion and MVP. “I try to lead by example.”
Win this series, and the Penguins – the Atlantic Division’s worst team from 2002 to ’06 – likely will be favoured to beat whichever team emerges from the other conference semifinal, Montreal or Philadelphia. Get that far, and a team is only eight wins away from the Stanley Cup.
“Every experience going to the playoffs, it’s a big lesson,” said forward Marian Hossa, who doesn’t think Crosby’s relative lack of postseason experience is a major detriment. “I know I’ve learned a lot.”
Still, the Rangers, with talented former Penguins Jagr and Martin Straka, a good-as-it-gets goalie in Henrik Lundqvist and a prime agitator in Sean Avery, are exactly the kind of team that could prove a major stumbling block.
During their eight regular season games, the Rangers repeatedly limited the Penguins’ scoring chances and made them play lower-scoring games than they like. As a result, the Penguins were held to one goal three times and were shut out once.
No doubt the Rangers will try to make this series equally tight, forcing Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to prove he can outdo Lundqvist in games where a single stray goal or mistake can be decisive.
The Penguins’ nine-day layoff shouldn’t be a factor; the Rangers needed only five games to eliminate the Devils and will have had a week’s layoff before Game 1.
“We know them, they know us. They’re a good team, but we’re a good team, as well,” coach Michel Therrien said. “The details of the game are going to be crucial, and we’re going to pay attention to detail.
“This is a team (New York) that, at the beginning of the year, people were expecting big things from them. It’s always a challenge to play a team like that. But we’re good, too.”
Notes: The Penguins held a demanding 80-minute practice Wednesday after learning the series would open Friday, not Thursday. … F Gary Roberts (groin) practised after missing the final two games of the Ottawa series. His status for Friday is uncertain. … The Penguins signed F Luca Caputi, a fourth-round draft pick last year, to a three-year entry contract.