PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby skates hard as he nears the top of the circle on a 3-on-2 break, both of his linemates and the goaltender anticipating one of those on-the-tape passes he makes as well as anyone in hockey.
Instead, Crosby cuts sharply toward the net and, crossing the slot, puts a backhander under the crossbar.
Sidney Crosby when he was age 11, dominating players much older and bigger? Sidney Crosby in juniors?
No, Sidney Crosby this season. Sid the playmaking kid has become one of the NHL’s premier goal-scorers while altering his game five seasons into his career.
He was good enough at age 21 last season to become the youngest captain in NHL history to raise the Stanley Cup, yet he wasn’t the all-around player he thought he could be.
The byproduct of a short but productive off-season in which Crosby tossed away the wooden blades he had always used to join hockey’s jet age by switching to the livelier composite stick? Just call it Sidney Crosby Version 2.0.
This Crosby is looking to score goals as much as he is to set them up. It’s almost like basketball’s best point guard becoming determined to make a successful switch to shooting guard.
“I think he focused this summer on being more of a shooter, working on his shot,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Monday. “That improvement you can see on the ice. Some of it’s a mentality about being a shooter and in those spots (close to the net), to shoot the puck. I think in the past you may have seen Sidney look to pass in those areas and he’s doing a lot more shooting.”
Crosby went into Monday’s games tied for second with Alex Ovechkin of Washington with 30 goals, two behind league leader Patrick Marleau of San Jose. Only last season, Ovechkin had 56 goals to Crosby’s 33.
With 30 goals in 49 games, Crosby is on pace for a 50-goal season – or 11 more than he’s had in any season.
“I’m trying to shoot more,” Crosby said. “You get bounces when you (consistently) put the puck on net and other things can happen. I’m trying to have more of a shooting mentality.”
It’s almost as if, at age 22, Crosby decided there’s something to hockey’s ancient axiom that only good things happen when you put the puck on the net.
Crosby ranks fourth with 185 shots after tying for 39th with 238 shots last season. Unlike many elite scorers, he is scoring the vast majority of his goals (21) at even strength; the Penguins are next to last in the league with a 14.6 per cent conversion rate on the power play.
During the Penguins’ western Canada swing last week, Edmonton coach Pat Quinn said he can’t stop admiring how a player as skilled as Crosby keeps trying to sharpen his game.
Crosby also was determined to improve on faceoffs this season; he ranks 11th in faceoff percentage after being only 64th last season.
Crosby’s assists have dropped to 27, down from the full-season 70 of last season, but that’s partly the result of the Penguins being unable to find productive wingers to play alongside him.
“I love watching him play,” Quinn said. “He’s my favourite as far as players in the NHL and guys who will carry our flame for our Canadian hopes. … We’ve had eras where people have stepped forward and been the face of our game – Gordie (Howe) and Bobby (Hull) and then you get (Bobby) Orr and (Wayne) Gretzky and (Mario) Lemieux. The kid is the face of our game, and he’s a good face.”
Crosby’s emergence as a top goal scorer should be an added asset for Canada in next month’s Vancouver Games.
“He’s also shot from outside (the prime) scoring areas, which you didn’t see him do much of,” Bylsma said. “He’s made a big improvement in that area and it’s added to his game and added to what he is as a player. Now, I think going into games, teams are more aware that he’s going to be shooting the puck more.”
If he is the face of the game, as Quinn says he is – and Ovechkin certainly figures into that equation – Crosby is showing a different face than before.
“Because you win it (the Stanley Cup) doesn’t mean your career is over and … doesn’t mean you stop improving,” Crosby said. “You get better.”