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Keeping a stiff upper lip on the ice Sidney Crosby emerged bloodied, but not beaten, from one of his most defining games ever, SHAWNA RICHER writes in Pittsburgh

Sidney Crosby emerged bloodied, but not beaten, from one of his most defining games ever, SHAWNA RICHER writes in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH

erday afternoon, a little less than 12 hours after his emotional game-winning goal in overtime, Sidney Crosby sat in his stall in the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room, his normally full, bee-stung lips sore and stitched and swollen, his boyish face looking more TKO than GQ.

It took the No. 1 draft pick from Cole Harbour, N.S., just 20 NHL games to score nine goals, register 15 assists, take four stitches and lose the tips of two front teeth. Pieces of his pearly whites were smashed and scattered somewhere on the ice at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday night, courtesy of some aggressive stick work by Darien Hatcher, the ornery Flyers defenceman.

With the game a scoreless battle for the first two periods, Mr. Hatcher took two runs at the budding superstar but was not given a penalty either time. Mr. Crosby was handed an unsportsmanlike minor when he mouthed off to the referee after receiving Mr. Hatcher's stick in the face for the second time.

But in the third period the rookie centre retaliated with finesse rather than fisticuffs -- scoring the game's first goal, assisting on another and then winning the game in overtime with a flashy breakaway down the middle with just 46 seconds left.

It was without question his most defining game so far this season; he melded toughness with pure goal-scoring and crafty playmaking in the right measures, and mixed in some zealous and timely back-checking. The evening made clear that with the season almost one-quarter passed, the much heralded first year player has met and at times exceeded expectations.

Throughout the Flyers-Penguins game, OLN analysts Neil Smith, the former New York Rangers general manager, and Keith Jones, once an NHL all-star winger, were ebullient over Mr. Crosby's efforts: "Look at him skate." "He's the complete package." "Crosby has grown into a man tonight," they enthused.

If Mr. Crosby continues to score at his current pace he would finish his freshman NHL season with 37 goals and 62 assists for 99 points -- just one shy of Mario Lemieux's 100 points in 1984-85 -- and good for sixth spot among the NHL's all-time top scoring rookies.

"I'm pretty happy with the way things have gone so far," he said this week.

"But there's still a lot of room for improvement. There are things I need to work on, other things I've done well. At the beginning I didn't have any expectations. I wanted to come in and adjust as soon as I could and I think I've done that. I'm comfortable now at this level. But I'm not satisfied. We want to win more. And I'm going to try and do my part to help."

At the beginning of the season there was an unrealistic presumption among some fans and followers that Mr. Crosby should be scoring goals more prodigiously. He netted his first in his third game and had just two through October, in which he earned rookie of the month honours, largely on the strength of his dozen assists.

He is philosophical about scoring in general: It's nice to do it, he said, but it matters less if the team doesn't win the game.

But many hockey insiders believe Mr. Crosby's anticipation and set-up abilities add far more value to his team than if he were a goal scorer above all else.

"He's such a great athlete," said Mike Emrick, the veteran play-by-play voice of the NHL on OLN and a long-time U.S. network hockey broadcaster. "I kept saying in the fall, 'don't expect this kid to have 100 points by Christmas.' But that said, he's going to get his points. Some of us were really guarded about forecasting great things because we didn't want to put excess pressure on him, but he seems to be fine with that and he seems to be fine performing.

"He's a playmaker. He's not going to lead the league in goals. But he might lead the league in points, some day, if not this year. And he may not lead the team in goals but I think he'll lead the team. Wayne Gretzky was like that. He had a lot of goals because he played a lot of games [1,487 games, 894 goals, 1,963 assists] but he was more of an assists guy."

After a Penguins victory this month at Madison Square Garden -- in which Mr. Crosby scored a highlight reel goal and was named the game's first star -- Jaromir Jagr, who won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, weighed in on the hype surrounding the No. 1 draft pick.

"To be honest, I think it's unfair to the older players who have given so much to hockey," Mr. Jagr said. "He might be a great player, but I would wait a little bit. He's had a good start, that's for sure, but you cannot compare him to Mario or Gretzky. We have to wait."

Rangers coach Tom Renney said that Mr. Crosby deserves the hype that has accompanied him everywhere for years.

"He's a terrific young player," Mr. Renney said. "Keeping in mind his age and how he fits so nicely into their scheme, he's a selfless player. Let's not lose sight of some of the other really good young players in our league. But I think Sidney's the premier guy."

The next morning, the New York Daily News declared: Sidney A Star On Broadway, a headline fat enough to read across the room. Yesterday, USA Today offered: Crosby Stellar in 3-2 Penguins Win. If that game is any indication, the accolades are only starting to pile up.

"Really, nothing he does surprises me," Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said. "I'm not saying he's ahead of where we thought he'd be. But he's picked up things in his understanding of the game. He has a lot of insight and offers a lot of ideas and opinions.

"There have been some games where you see the trials of a first-year pro. Sometimes it's not going to happen. But the goals and assists will come because he's a skilled player. But the back-checking or stopping and starting or picking up the right guy, those are areas where you see he's progressed.

"But not many 18-year-olds come in with the hype and the buildup, and it doesn't surprise me he's been able to handle it."

For years, since he excelled at prep school in Minnesota and then in the Quebec junior league, the public's expectations for Mr. Crosby have been ridiculously, perhaps even unfairly, high. But on the eve of his first NHL game on Oct. 5, Mr. Crosby was grounded on the concept of greatness.

"I don't think that far ahead, to be honest," he said then. "I think to be great you have to prove that you're the best year after year and show that by winning. Maybe after a player's played so many years, or someone like Tiger Woods that has won championships and has proven that, he can say that. For me, I have to prove that."

With 20 games under his skates, his view has not changed: he needs his teammates as much as they need him and has played that way each shift so far, even when struggling with the many losses.

"There's so much you can do to pick each other up; make a big hit, block a shot and dump it in," he said. "You have to do something to show you want it. I don't want to cheat my teammates."

So far, he hasn't cheated his teammates, his employers, the fans who buy the tickets or the game itself. "He's leading the rookies, he's among of the top players in scoring," Mr. Emrick said. "We had hoped that would be the case, those of us who were cheering for him and cheering for hockey. So he's done that.

"But the important thing I saw in the first game I watched him play in Buffalo was his character. He had him mic'd and he was at the bench and talking not like a shy rookie but a guy who had confidence. The primary thing is the quality of person he is.

"It's the thing that has always made hockey players more appealing than any other collection of athletes you'll find and it's the thing that makes him the foremost of the hockey players."

TRACKING THE TOP ROOKIESSIDNEY CROSBY: Penguins centre is on a roll with 9 goals and 15 assists for 24 points in 20 games.

ALEXANDER OVECHKIN: Capitals winger has 14 goals, 5 assists for 19 points through 18 games.

MAREK SVATOS: Avalanche winger edges into top three with 9 goals, 7 assists for 16 points in 17 games.

Includes games through Nov. 16

TOP 10 SCORING ROOKIES

TEEMU SELANNE*, Winnipeg, 1992-93: 76 goals, 56 assists, 132 points

PETER STASTNY*, Quebec, 1980-81: 39 goals, 70 assists, 109 points

DALE HAWERCHUK*, Winnipeg, 1981-82: 45 goals, 58 assists, 103 points

JOE JUNEAU, Boston, 1992-93: 32 goals, 70 assists, 102 points

MARIO LEMIEUX*, Pittsburgh, 1984-85: 43 goals, 57 assists, 100 points

NEAL BROTEN, Minnesota, 1981-82: 38 goals, 60 assists, 98 points

BRYAN TROTTIER*, NY Islanders, 1975-76: 32 goals, 63 assists, 95 points

BARRY PEDERSON*, Boston, 1981-82: 44 goals, 48 assists, 92 points

JOE NIEUWENDYK*, Calgary, 1987-88: 51 goals, 41 assists, 92 points

MIKE BOSSY*, NY Islanders, 1977-78: 53 goals, 38 assists, 91 points

* denotes Calder Trophy winner

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