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An assist on his first breakaway The crowd held its collective breath whenever Crosby touched the puck, SHAWNA RICHER writes

The crowd held its collective breath whenever Crosby touched the puck, SHAWNA RICHER writes

WILKES-BARRE, PA

ey Crosby played his first National Hockey League game as though his body was bursting with goals that ached to escape.

The hockey prodigy and the Pittsburgh Penguins No. 1 draft pick, who has not played or scored competitively since May 28, the semifinal game in which his Rimouski Oceanic beat the Ottawa 67s to advance to the Memorial Cup final, seemed desperate to score. He played as though he was possessed, as though the goals everyone knows are inside of him actually hurt to be left there.

As the game wore on, the 18-year-old from Cole Harbour, N.S., only looked more feisty. He arrived in Pittsburgh from the junior ranks with so much fanfare and expectation. He looked determined to live up to all of it last night against the Boston Bruins, who won the preseason game 5-4 on a sudden-death overtime power play.

Every time Mr. Crosby corralled the puck, the game seemed to shift into a kind of slow motion; fans edged forward on their seats. He crashed the net a half-dozen times in the third period, a tipped puck or a close check away from scoring. The 5,000 fans at Wachovia Arena held their breath each time.

"I was a little bit [nervous]," he said after the game. "More anxious to get started, I guess. There's been a lot of firsts lately: first training camp, first game. I expected that, but it's nice to get going and get that behind me.

"I think it went pretty good. It's the first game and I just want to improve from here. I think I can play here. I think I can help the team."

Make the team? Help the team?

Mario Lemieux, the Penguins player-owner who played his first preseason game last night as well, was bolder: "It's amazing what he can do at 18. He's just turned 18. In a couple of years, he could be scary."

On his first NHL breakaway, Mr. Crosby slithered through two Bruins defenders and came ever so close to slipping the puck softly beneath the right pad of goaltender Tim Thomas, but the shot rolled a bit and seemed to get lost. Mr. Crosby's linemate, the veteran Mark Recchi, stuffed it over the goal line. With the first period less than half over, Mr. Crosby had his first point -- an assist -- in his first NHL game. The fans to a person leaped to their feet and chanted "Cros-by, Cros-by" like a battle cry.

Mr. Crosby's first shift lasted 75 seconds. Playing on the second line, he vaulted over the boards early in the first period. The tip of his skate blade had not even touched the ice and the crowd burst forth with an ear-splitting cheer.

In the first period he lugged the puck from the blue line toward the Boston goal with Bruins defender Milan Jurcina hanging off his back. Mr. Crosby was finally hauled down and the defenceman was penalized for hooking. Mr. Recchi's goal came on the ensuing power play.

Through the first two periods, Mr. Crosby drew three penalties, two of which led to Penguins goals. His slap shot rang off the crossbar. He worked doggedly behind the net. He stopped on a dime, reversed direction, scooped up an errant pass, fought off two defenders to get his shot off. He hit the post. A few moments later, he was bearing down on the goal but Bruins defender Hal Gill tipped the puck away.

A day of firsts remained a typical game day for the rookie. He participated in the morning skate. He had a nap and pasta for his pregame meal, a routine he kept the past several seasons in the Quebec Junior Hockey League. He is a superstitious player, and he doesn't mess with his routine.

"I like the way he played," Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said. "He has acceleration on-ice presence, he finds the holes, picks his spots and darts to them. He has speed and skill."

Rumours circulated beginning several days ago that Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Crosby would play together as linemates. Mr. Olczyk promised yesterday that at some point they would, and did several times on the power play.

"I know he was nervous a little bit, but he played really well," said Mr. Lemieux, who had a pair of assists. "He had some breakaways and fought along the boards. He made some good plays and got to the net. He's good on his skates and strong."

Mr. Crosby said it was important to him not to change his game, his routine, or anything from the way he has done things in junior the past two seasons.

It wasn't completely perfect. Mr. Olczyk said his young rookie "over passed" the puck and needed to shoot more. Mr. Crosby, who prides himself on being a playmaker, agreed.

Hockey dreams have been realized, at various levels, in all kinds of far-flung places. But here in Wilkes-Barre, a former coal-mining town in the Poconos, Mr. Crosby took a significant step toward his childhood dream last night.

"The dream won't be realized until Oct. 5 in New Jersey," he said earlier in camp, his face solemn and his words stoic. "Until then, it's still a dream."

That evening, a fortnight from now, the Penguins play the Devils. Mr. Lemieux will turn 40. The rookie will get his wish. The first goal must wait.

WHO GETS THE THRILL?

A wily warhorse and a mop-haired sophomore who was the Penguins' top rookie prospect in the last NHL season.

MARK RECCHI Comparable in size and strength to Sidney Crosby at 5-foot-10 and 190 lbs., this dependable 17-year NHL veteran gives the rookie a steady, productive winger with plenty of experience from which to learn. The Penguins have put Mr. Recchi next to Mr. Crosby in the locker room with just that in mind. Their chemistry has been palpable in practice so far.

RYAN MALONE The 26-year-old left winger who hails from Pittsburgh is entering his second season in the NHL. Like Mr. Crosby, he has a nifty touch around the net. He was the first NHL rookie to score three overtime goals in one season, and led the Penguins with three short-handed goals. He's good in the clutch, too, having scored four game-winning goals. An imposing 6-foot-four and 216 pounds, Mr. Malone adds some size to the rookie's line.

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