LOS ANGELES – It was a sleepy, pleasant little night, nothing more, as the NHL’s Skills Competition always is. No one would’ve cared if Sidney Crosby set his Best Player in the World crown down for a few hours. But we should know by now it’s just not the way he works.
If Peyton Manning or Tom Brady entered a skills competition, no matter how low the stakes, they’d give it their all. Same goes for Michael Jordan or LeBron James. It’s just how they’re wired. And Crosby, with all the excuses in the world to look human Saturday at Staples Center, decided…nah, he’d keep behaving like a cyborg.
“There’s 20,000 here, and they want to see some skills, so you want to make sure you do well,” Crosby told reporters. “But once you’re out there, you’ve just got to enjoy it and have fun with the guys.”
He was tested three times in his first Skills Competition in 10 years and did nothing but deliver. First came the stickhandling leg of the Skills Challenge Relay. While his counterpart, rising superstar Auston Matthews, fumbled under the bright lights, Crosby effortlessly weaved the puck around the markers. Later, matched against Matthews in the accuracy shooting event, Crosby needed a special effort to top Matthews’ 4-for-5 performance in 12.28 seconds. Crosby pulled it out in 10.73 seconds.
“I just told the guys to try to get pucks out quickly to just get me time and get a rhythm,” Crosby told reporters. “When you’re out there, you’re not thinking about it too much. You do that all the time after practice. It’s not quite the same pressure, but you just try to get the pucks out quick, and they did a good job of that.”
In the night’s final event, the team shootout round, Crosby stared down San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones on a breakaway. Yawn. Crosby deftly slid the puck through Jones’ legs, capping off a near flawless night.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Columbus Blue Jackets right winger Cam Atkinson. “He’s an all-star for a reason and the best player in the world for a reason.”
I know, you’re sick of hearing about how special Crosby is. Why should we care about what he does in a skills competition? Because Saturday night, when there was no reason for anything memorable to happen, he managed to stand out. And he did so on a night lacking entertainment value, a night that hardly qualified as a legitimate showcase of the league’s talent. We saw missed nets galore in the one-timer portion of the Skills Challenge Relay. The Four Line Challenge, in which players had to try to score goals through designated holes, was a huge bust, yielding achingly few goals, rescued only by goaltender Mike Smith’s full-ice snipe. Crosby could’ve taken the night off, the way most of the NHL all-stars seemed to, but it’s just not in his DNA. Zero pressure? No problem. He’ll create his own pressure and still come through, and there was something oddly thrilling about seeing that Saturday.
“It’s surprising that it’s only his second time in this,” said New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, Crosby’s longtime Metropolitan Division rival. “You think of all he’s accomplished, not only for Pittsburgh but internationally, and he’s only had two times at this event. It’s probably something he wants to show up and do well at, because he hasn’t had an opportunity in the past. And it seems like that’s the kind of player he is. Super competitive and likes to be successful, obviously.”
Everyone in the NHL gets a break this weekend – even the all-stars to a certain extent. But Crosby gets less R&R than almost everyone else, swarmed by reporters at every turn. Maybe that kept him in mid-season form Saturday, and maybe that’ll give him a running start in the second half of the season. His 55 points put him four behind Connor McDavid’s 59 for the NHL lead. Crosby has played far fewer games, having missed his first six. His current point-per-game rate puts him on track to finish the year with 99 points if he plays in each of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ final 34 games, whereas the Edmonton Oilers’ McDavid is on pace to finish with 95 if he continues scoring at the same rate. It should be fun to watch them joust for the Art Ross.