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Crosby makes a good Penguins team truly great

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Look at the replay, and it seems like an awesome individual effort: Sidney Crosby(notes) streaks up the ice, fends off a defenseman and backhands the puck top shelf.

But look at the replay again. Look at it through the eyes of coach Dan Bylsma, and you see it was more than that. You see the real reason why Crosby's comeback from a concussion makes the Pittsburgh Penguins a better team.

This is what Bylsma saw: The play starts in the defensive end. Deryk Engelland(notes) quickly sends the puck up the strong-side wall, and Pascal Dupuis(notes) passes it from the left wing to the middle at about the red line. Crosby has been gathering speed, expecting the puck, planning to catch his opponents flat-footed.

The finish was world class, the goal a signature moment as Crosby returned with two goals and two assists Monday night in a 5-0 victory over the New York Islanders. But the sequence that set up the scoring chance is simply part of the Penguins' system.

It's no secret, and it doesn't always work. The St. Louis Blues game-planned against it Wednesday night, took away the strong-side wall and beat the Penguins in overtime, 3-2. Crosby had no points and six penalty minutes. But more often than not, the Penguins’ way is effective – and most effective with No. 87.

"You talk about how we play," Bylsma said. "You talk about how we execute. It didn't change [Monday] night. It looks a little different with Sidney Crosby's speed through the middle of the ice."

To understand how well the Penguins can play with Crosby, go back to how well they played without him. They went 34-19-8 in the 61 regular-season games he missed.

Now go even deeper than that. When Crosby came back Monday night, it was only the third time in 103 regular-season games that the Penguins had their top three centermen in the lineup at the same time.

The Penguins were one of the best teams in the NHL the first half of last season, winning 12 games in a row at one point, all without Jordan Staal(notes). Just as Staal came back from injury, Crosby went down. Evgeni Malkin(notes) went down not long afterward.

Injuries continued to decimate the Penguins. They had the top seven scorers from their farm team in the lineup at one point. Their first-line right winger was Nick Johnson(notes), now the third-line right winger on the Minnesota Wild.

"I'm pretty sure I've dressed better teams in exhibition – even on the road," said general manager Ray Shero.

Still, the Penguins finished with 106 points, tied for second-most in the Eastern Conference. They blew a 3-1 series lead and lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, but they feel they might have won had Matt Cooke(notes) not gotten himself suspended for a head shot.

The Penguins kept winning despite a drop in scoring. Fleury played great in goal, and they didn't change their approach in front of him.

"It was funny last year. People were always saying, 'Are you playing more defensive now?' " said defenseman Brooks Orpik(notes). "To be honest, it was the exact same system, the exact same game plan. You realized [Crosby and Malkin] weren't there. Nobody said anything, but you knew if we were giving up three goals a game, now you have to give up two. We didn't change the system. We didn't go back to a trap or anything or do anything differently. We just kept playing the same way."

Bylsma even kidded Crosby and Malkin at one point when things were going well, asking the two superstars – both of whom have won NHL scoring titles – if they thought they could fit into the system when they returned.

"To have long-term success in this league, to try to build this thing up, you can't be about one or two players," Shero said. "To win a Cup, you need the support around them, and when you look back, when we had some success there and won a Cup, it was our role players who were fantastic."

Remember: It was Max Talbot(notes), not Crosby or Malkin, who scored both goals in the Penguins' 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup final. Talbot plays for the rival Philadelphia Flyers now, but as Crosby's comeback approached, he knew the effect his former teammate would have on his former team.

"He's the best player in the league, but it's not like he's the best player and he plays his own way," Talbot said. "He plays the Penguins way. He plays the system. So it's not going to change the chemistry or anything. It's just going to get them better."

And so here was Crosby streaking up ice on that set play Monday night, scoring his first goal on his first shot since Jan. 5. Bylsma said fourth-line center Richard Park(notes), a veteran who rejoined the Penguins this season, could use that as a clear example of how the system can work.

And here was Crosby managing the puck well in the offensive zone. Bylsma pointed out there were no fancy toe-drags, no sexy saucer passes, just "good, hardnosed offensive zone play." Look at Crosby’s second goal: He wins a battle for the puck down low, carries it back up the right-wing wall and hits the brakes. He changes direction, creates separation from a defender, fires a bad-angle backhand and gets rewarded when the puck slips into the net.

"It looks different, but it's not off the game plan," Bylsma said. "It's not taking chances. It's really playing the way we want to play as a team. It certainly has a different dynamic and a different thrust when 87's in the zone stopping and starting and dancing like that and holding onto the puck."

Bylsma said Crosby had some other opportunities that could "enlighten" his teammates, making them say to themselves, "You know what? I can throw the puck at the net like that, too. I can play in the offensive zone like that and make those plays."

All the Penguins can't make plays like Crosby. But when Crosby plays like all the Penguins – just with more talent – a good team can become great.

FIRST PERIOD

I could see trouble coming for the Boston Bruins on Aug. 24, the day goaltender Tim Thomas(notes) brought the Stanley Cup to his hometown of Davison, Mich. Here was one of the most positive, energetic athletes I've ever met, and here he was on one of the proudest days of his life – and here he was talking about how worn out he was.

"Winning the Stanley Cup takes more emotional, physical and mental energy than I would have ever believed," Thomas said then. "I mean, I've been tired after seasons before, but after this run, it's a hard recovery."

Whoa. So as the Bruins got off to a 3-7-0 start, sinking as low as last place in the Eastern Conference, I wasn't surprised.

"It was really hard at the beginning of the year with all the Stanley Cup hangovers," said Thomas this week in a media conference call. "There's something to be said about it."

Oh, I said something about it, and I wasn't the only one.

But should anyone be that surprised the Bruins have rattled off 10 straight wins since?

The talk of firing coach Claude Julien and shaking up the team with a trade was asinine. These are the defending champions, and they're even better on paper this season. They kept their core virtually intact, and Tyler Seguin(notes), the second overall pick last year, has taken off in his second NHL season. His 12 goals are tied for third in the league. His 23 points are tied for ninth.

All the Bruins needed was some focus, and they actually got it, indirectly, from the hangover itself.

"I think what started our success is, we got to the point where everybody was invested in each and every game," Thomas said. "Probably coming off the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Stanley Cup final, where each and every game is so important, it was hard for us to re-create that kind of feeling in the locker room at the beginning of the year. But we got ourselves in such a big hole that effectively we made each and every game very important because we couldn't afford to go any further down."

SECOND PERIOD

When you're a parent, you learn to threaten only the punishments that you're willing to carry out. If you tell the kids you're going to leave the restaurant if they don't quiet down, you better be willing to leave that half-eaten meal on the table if they don't. Otherwise, you'll lose credibility.

Bruce Boudreau seems like a parent who has painted himself in a corner right now. He has preached accountability to the Washington Capitals, and so he has had to follow through – benching Alex Ovechkin(notes) because he wasn't getting it done, scratching Alex Semin because he kept taking penalties, scratching Joel Ward(notes) because he overslept and missed a team meeting.

Ovechkin is the floundering star, Semin is the frustrating enigma, and Ward is one of the favorite sons. They're different players; they're different situations. But when you say you're going to hold everyone to the same standard, you have to. Rules are rules.

This team needs a firm hand, though. It needs less mothering and more fathering. General manager George McPhee is doing the right thing by supporting Boudreau, and Boudreau is doing the right thing by trying to rein in these unruly kids. If McPhee fired Boudreau, he probably would bring in a coach who would do what Boudreau is doing now – a coach who would preach defense and discipline.

Boudreau is a good coach. He just reached 200 victories faster than any NHL coach ever has before. But he knows that all those victories don't mean much if he doesn't win in the playoffs, and so he has to take some short-term risks and go through some growing pains for long-term gains. He has to stick with it.

It might be starting to work. Semin bounced back from his benching Wednesday night by scoring a goal and taking no penalties, and Ovechkin kept his shifts to a reasonable 49-second average and earned an assist in a 4-3 overtime victory over the Winnipeg Jets. You know Ward won't sleep in again.

It would be foolish to let up and eat now while the kids are coloring all over the booth. Boudreau would end up in the parking lot eventually, even more unsatisfied.

THIRD PERIOD

Now that the NBA is mired in a long-term labor battle, the NHL won't try to take advantage of it with a marketing campaign designed to steal some basketball fans. It would be shortsighted, and it likely wouldn't be that effective, anyway.

Remember that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman once worked for the NBA under its commissioner, David Stern. Some NHL owners also own or are invested in NBA franchises. And if the NHL tried to kick the bigger NBA when it is down, what would happen if the NBA got back on its feet and the NHL found itself locked out at this time next year? The NBA could swat right back at the NHL.

Without basketball, hockey might receive more media exposure in some markets. But from a national perspective, ESPN, say, is more likely to run more football coverage than more hockey coverage to fill the void. Some casual sports fans might cross over, but the sports generally serve two different fan bases.

The NHL is still a gate-driven league, and the NBA lockout probably won't provide much growth in terms of attendance.

The Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche are teams that aren't selling out and share buildings with NBA teams. Maybe they could draw some basketball fans.

But though several other teams share buildings with NBA teams – the Bruins, Capitals, Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings – they're already selling out on a nightly basis. They have no place to put basketball fans.

And though some other teams share markets with NBA teams – the Red Wings, Islanders, Wild, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Phoenix Coyotes – the Wings and Sharks are already selling out, and it remains to be seen just how many fans the others can lure from one building to another.

Finally, 13 NHL teams – almost half the league – play in markets without an NBA team. It's hard to imagine any impact there.

POWER RANKINGS

TOP 6

1. Boston Bruins: By winning 10 straight, the defending champs have leapt from last in the East to first in the Northeast. They lead the league in goal differential at plus-27. No one else is better than plus-15.

2. San Jose Sharks: They have won four straight and six of their last seven. Up next Saturday night: a rematch of the Western Conference final against the Vancouver Canucks.

3. Minnesota Wild: While some other surprise teams have come back to earth – the Stars, the Edmonton Oilers – the Wild is atop the league standings a quarter of the way through the season. It's even more remarkable when you consider Dany Heatley(notes) and Devin Setoguchi(notes), the big offensive acquisitions, have only six goals apiece.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins: I stand by my statement that this is the best team in the league if healthy. But the Pens are 1-2-1 in their last four, and though Crosby came back triumphantly Monday night against the Isles, he was welcomed back to reality Wednesday night against the Blues.

5. Philadelphia Flyers: It's pretty amazing that Jaromir Jagr(notes) has become such an important part of the team that he's fending off questions about an extension. But he's right when he says it's too early to tell. He turns 40 on Feb. 15. He hasn't gone through the 82-games-plus-playoffs NHL grind since 2007-08. Let's see how he looks and feels at the end of the season.

6. Florida Panthers: Two things I was wrong about: That it would take time for all these new players to become a team, and that Kris Versteeg(notes) should be a third-liner on a good team and not a first-liner on a bad one. Versteeg is tied for third in the league in goals (12) and points (26).

BOTTOM 6

25. Carolina Hurricanes: Just as attention started to focus on coach Paul Maurice's job security, the ’Canes played well in a 1-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres and then earned five out of six points in their next three games.

26. Colorado Avalanche: The problems range from goaltending to scoring to losing on home ice. The Avs are 3-8-0 at home and 2-8-1 in November. Even impressive rookie Gabriel Landeskog(notes), the second overall pick in last June’s entry draft, has cooled off with only two assists in the past seven games.

27. Calgary Flames: Captain Jarome Iginla(notes) is off to a slow start and doesn't seem to be on the same page with coach Brent Sutter, and the Flames are 2-5-0 in their last seven.

28. Anaheim Ducks: When Ryan Getzlaf(notes) and Teemu Selanne(notes) are taking unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, as they did Wednesday night in a 4-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, the frustration couldn't be more apparent. The Ducks are 0-4-1 in their last five and 2-10-4 in their last 16.

29. Columbus Blue Jackets: Jeff Carter(notes) has three goals in six games since returning from a foot injury. More importantly, the once woebegone Jackets have gone 3-1-2.

30. New York Islanders: The Isles have sunk so low that they're looking at the positives from Wednesday night, when they blew a two-goal lead and lost to the Flyers in overtime, 4-3.

PLUS/MINUS

PLUS: The Blues are 5-1-2 since hiring coach Ken Hitchcock. Maybe they would have turned things around under Davis Payne. When he was fired, they had played nine of their first 13 games on the road, and they had six straight home games coming up. But Hitch has 'em playing fast, smart, hard hockey.

MINUS: As if things weren't bad enough for the Ducks, the Francois Beauchemin(notes) trade looks horrendous. Beauchemin, a veteran defenseman, has six points and is minus-6, while Joffrey Lupul(notes) and Jake Gardiner(notes) have been excellent for the Maple Leafs. Lupul, a winger who had health problems in the past, has been one of the biggest surprises of the first quarter, tied for third in the league in scoring with 26 points. Gardiner, a young defenseman, has seven points and is minus-1, but his poised play has been even better than his stats.

PLUS: When did Panthers defenseman Jason Garrison(notes) become a long-range bomber? He had seven goals in 113 NHL games entering this season. He has eight goals in 21 games already this season. Not bad for a guy who was never drafted.

MINUS: Coaches are supposed to put their players in position to succeed, and the Isles' Jack Capuano decided to give goaltender Anders Nilsson(notes) his first NHL start Monday night at Pittsburgh amid all the Sidney Crosby hoopla. Rick DiPietro(notes) was healthy enough to start Wednesday night against the Flyers. Why not use him against the Pens?

PLUS: Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic(notes) had zero points through his first 27 games last season. He has 11 points through 19 games this season – seven of them coming in a recent three-game span.

MINUS: NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan(notes) gave Kings defenseman Drew Doughty(notes) only a $2,500 fine for cross-checking Blues forward T.J. Oshie(notes) in the back and sending him into the boards dangerously Tuesday night. Doughty isn't a dirty player, and Oshie did turn at the last moment. But the game was virtually over and the cross-check was deliberate. Too light.

@COTSONIKA TWEET

“I know some people are sick of Sid and the coverage of him. But if you can't appreciate what he did last night, why do you watch hockey?”

Some people are just never going to like Sidney Crosby. Maybe they root for one of the Penguins' rivals. Maybe they hate the way he whines to the referees sometimes. Maybe they're contrarians, naturally repelled by whoever is on top, preferring to pull for an underdog instead. Maybe they don't like his cheesy mustache. I don't know. Whatever the reason – loyalty, style, plain ol' personal preference – that's fine.

Still, I can't believe the backlash to the coverage of Crosby's return, especially the coverage of what he did on the ice Monday night. Yeah, there were months of no-news updates. Yeah, there were hours of breathless buildup to the game. It was tedious at times, too much at others. But Crosby is one of those rare athletes who lives up to the hype, and boy, despite the immense hype this time, did he live up to it yet again.

It's pointless to ask if the coverage would have been the same if Crosby weren't Canadian. He is Canadian. This was a big deal not because of any one factor, but because of many factors all tied together. He is from Canada, where hockey means more than anywhere else. He did score the Golden Goal that gave his country the gold medal over the United States at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, adding to his already amazing list of accomplishments. He was separating himself from his peers with a monster season when he was injured last year, in a league that had become tighter than ever before. He did suffer a concussion, at a time when the issue was already on the NHL's front burner. He did miss 10-1/2 months, then looked like he never left. His story is all of that and more, and to pick out one element takes it out of context.

It's unfair to compare him to Tim Tebow. Crosby is a polarizing figure. He receives a lot of media attention. But that's about all he has in common with the Denver Broncos quarterback. Crosby was unquestionably the best player in the NHL when he was injured; Tebow is not even close to the best player in the NFL, as great as he was in college. Crosby has not made his religion an issue; Tebow has. (And don't get me started on comparing Crosby to Christ. If you see Sid as some kind of hockey Jesus – or see the coverage of him as idolizing him to that level – holy cow. That's on you. We say hockey is religion; it's not.)

Crosby is a great player. He made a great comeback. It was a great moment. If you like the game – even if you just enjoy a great story – how could you not at least tip your hat here? Isn't this what it's all about?

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