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Learning the lessons of losing Still winless, frustrated Crosby shatters stick against the boards

Still winless, frustrated Crosby shatters stick against the boards

PITTSBURGH

he third period against the Boston Bruins on Saturday night, with his team trailing 5-1, Sidney Crosby finished another frustrating shift, skated to the bench, dropped his stick over his right shoulder and then brought it down with all his might, like a six-foot Samurai sword, against the top of the boards.

The stick shattered, pieces flying in all directions. The Penguins' rookie centre slammed the bench door so it sounded like the crack of a gunshot in the nearly sold-out arena.

Then, he sat down, tidied up the shards of his broken stick and helped himself to a fresh, intact one.

Losing, when it happens time and again, makes a kid mad. Especially one used to winning.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are deeply frustrated these days. The National Hockey League club that lucked into the talented Mr. Crosby in the draft and signed high-scoring veteran free agents Mark Recchi, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair and Sergei Gonchar to a team that already boasted Mario Lemieux is the worst in the league.

The Penguins have yet to win a game.

On paper, they are one of the most offensively talented clubs in the NHL. Between them, those veterans have scored 1,987 career goals. Adding the boy wonder -- Mr. Crosby -- was supposed to make them a juggernaut, lift them from last place in 2003-04 and make them a contender for the Stanley Cup.

Before the season began expectations were ridiculously high, inside the Penguins dressing room and out. How could they not be with that lineup? There was nowhere to go but up.

Yet the team is winless in eight games; off to the worst start in the franchise's 38-year history. They have lost four of those games outright and four others in overtime. They have scored just 23 goals but allowed 39, second worst among the league's 30 teams.

What is going on with this team whose sum is so much less than its parts?

The Penguins are desperately hoping to break the slump tonight at the Igloo against the Florida Panthers. If they don't right things soon, it is expected that something significant will happen -- the coach, Eddie Olczyk, could be fired or players could be traded or new ones signed.

The team's payroll is $29-million (all figures U.S.), about $10-million under the league's salary cap.

"It's tough," Mr. Crosby said after the Boston game, a 6-3 loss in which he made two pretty passes for assists and almost scored on a breakaway in the third period but the shot hit the post.

A few minutes afterward, he smashed his stick.

"The first few games, I was just happy to be in the NHL, and I didn't think much about that [losing] because I was just happy to be here. But now that I'm here and working hard, and we haven't got a win yet, it's tough. Winning is fun. Losing isn't. This hasn't been a fun time lately. That's for sure."

Mr. Crosby's stick smashing seemed to energize him and that, in turn, seemed to lift the team. He levelled Bruins winger P. J. Axelsson with a vigorous check that put the Boston player on his seat, and took possession of the puck. The play resulted in a Penguins goal by Ryan Malone.

The Penguins played a solid first period on Saturday night. The effort by Mr. Gonchar, the offensive-minded defenceman who signed a five-year, $25-million contract and has been disappointing so far, was his best of the season.

But they self-destructed in the second period under the weight of eight penalties, and Boston scored four goals in 10 minutes. Penalties have been a season-long plague upon the Penguins.

"We dig ourselves in a hole and can't deal with it," Mr. Crosby said.

For the rookie, who enjoyed a 35-game unbeaten streak last season with his junior team, the Rimouski Oceanic, a slump of this length is something he's never really experienced. The Pens franchise, however, suffered through its longest winless streak -- 18 games -- in the last season.

"I've heard a few stories about that," Mr. Crosby said with a smile after loss number three, when things still didn't feel so dire. But there's little to joke about now.

In eight games, the Pens have scored the first goal only once -- in their home opener on Oct. 8 against Boston.

"It's no secret," he said. "We get down and dig ourselves in holes. We have to play with the lead; enough of chasing and falling behind."

After a loss last week to the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, Mr. Lemieux, the team's captain and owner, said tersely that sloppy execution was the reason for the Pens' struggles.

"We just have to put in the effort and make sure we do the right things on the ice and play as a team," Mr. Lemieux said. "Right now we're not.

"It's not the start we want. I think everyone's surprised. The expectation level was pretty high here. We made a lot of changes this summer to put a good product on the ice. We just have to pull out of it. Quickly."

That night, Mr. Crosby said he was confident he and his teammates could regroup.

"We know we're right there," he said, using his hands to suggest the space between winning and losing was not so far. "We're confident in ourselves."

The Penguins did not have another game for five long days, when they would face New Jersey. And so they practised. And they practised. And they practised some more. They watched videos, had meetings and talked about the game and their struggles.

They felt they had found solutions.

But against the Devils they again struggled, and again searched for answers. Immediately after the game, another 6-3 loss, Mr. Crosby, his lip bloody and cheek cut from an errant stick, stayed in his equipment long after his teammates had tossed their jerseys in the laundry bin and headed for the showers.

He stared at the carpet, lost in thought.

He is having a wonderful season. Almost always the best Penguin on the ice, Mr. Crosby leads all rookies with two goals and nine assists in eight games.

"I just want to win," he said. "I'm not worried about points right now. Team points -- that's my focus. Every team goes through a tough point in a season, and we have to look at it right now as a hump we have to get over.

"We can't give up. Because that first win is going to be even tougher the way things are going right now."

RECENT CAMPAIGNS

2004-05: Crosby's Rimouski Oceanic finished 45-17-5-3 and enjoyed a 35-game unbeaten run.

2003-04: In his first season, Rimouski finished 38-24-5-3, a big improvement over the previous, pre-Crosby campaign of 11-58-3-0.

THE NHL'S TOP ROOKIES

SIDNEY CROSBY: The Penguins 18-year-old centre continues to lead the pack in scoring with 2 goals and 9 assists through 8 games.

ALEXANDER OVECHKIN: The Washington Capitals' 20-year-old left winger has 6 goals and 4 assists in 9 games.

PAVEL VOROBIEV: The 23-year-old Chicago Blackhawks right winger has 5 goals and 4 assists through 9 games.

OFF THE ICE

Sidney Crosby is hockey's hottest rookie in more ways than one. The November issue of GQ has just hit the newsstands and features the rookie shirtless, smiling and showing off pecs, six-pack and stick-work in one photo, and relaxing in just hockey pants and a dreamy gaze in another. Teenage girls are going to love the new NHL.

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