Sidney Crosby & Friends: Lockout quality time paying off for Penguins' top line

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PITTSBURGH — While other players scattered across the globe during the NHL lockout, Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis spent a ton of time together. Not only in the same city. Not only in the same practice rink. But in the same small area of the ice.

Crosby, 25, had recovered from his concussion problems, and he was burning to play after appearing in only 28 games since January 2011. But he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play overseas. Kunitz and Dupuis, both 33, both family men, wanted to stick close to home.

So the three Pittsburgh Penguins pushed each other in the gym, and they usually skated together four times a week at Southpointe. They would work on their skills. Then they would scrimmage. With so few others around, they couldn’t play a 5-on-5, 200-foot game. They had to play a 3-on-3, 85-foot game – setting up the nets against the sideboards, skating the width of the rink, staying within the confines of one zone.

It was unfortunate. It was frustrating. But it was also laying the foundation for Crosby to reclaim his spot atop the sport, for the old linemates to click again, for Kunitz and Dupuis to produce at a greater rate than ever before. Under the circumstances, out of necessity, the three of them honed their particular brand of hockey – chip-and-go, tight quarters, board battles, quick hands, sharp passes.

“I think that’s what we’re doing right now,” Dupuis said. “I think if you see all the stuff that we do, it’s not, like, a cross-ice saucer pass and a nice goal. It’s all quick stuff.”

Crosby entered Tuesday night leading the NHL in scoring with 48 points, eight more than anyone else. He was on a 130-point pace for a full 82-game season. When he went down in January 2011, he was on a 132-point pace – far in front, headed for a career high.

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Kunitz entered Tuesday night tied for second in the league in goals (18) and points (40). He was on a 49-goal, 109-point pace for a full 82-game season. Despite the 48-game schedule, he was still on pace to surpass his career highs.

Even though he rarely squeezes onto the Pens’ stacked power play, Dupuis entered Tuesday night with 14 goals and 21 points. He was on a 38-goal, 57-point pace for a full 82-game season. That goal total would shatter his career high.

The Penguins entered Tuesday night on a nine-game winning streak, in first place in the Eastern Conference.

“When you work on stuff with the best player in the game,” Dupuis said, “you get better, too.”

“Maybe that’s all paying off,” Kunitz said.

Maybe it’s even more than that.

“The chemistry that the three of them have is phenomenal,” said Bill Guerin, the Penguins’ player development coach, who played on a line with Crosby and Kunitz when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009. “They’re the best in the league right now.”

* * * * *

Make no mistake. This starts with Crosby, and it revolves around him. His brain has healed, his neck issue is gone, and just about everything is back – from his spatial awareness, to his hand-eye coordination, to his conditioning.

About the only Crosby isn’t doing as well as he did before is goal-scoring, because passing comes more naturally to him than shooting, but he’s passing so well and his linemates are finishing so well, he’s putting up points at virtually the same rate.

Coach Dan Bylsma marveled at how, despite all the time he missed, he is already playing at the highest level at both ends of the ice consistently. Asked how far Crosby is from where he was two years ago, Dupuis laughed.

“Ahead, you mean?” Dupuis said, taking it farther. “How far ahead is he? He’s right back where he was, if not even better. It was a shame during the lockout that he was not playing hockey. I can just put it that way.”

Crosby once again has that classic quality of great players. As Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien said: “He’s got such a knack for making players around him better. It’s not by accident those guys have success when they play with him.”

But it’s not by accident Kunitz and Dupuis are the guys succeeding with him, either, even if neither was drafted, even if both bounced around the NHL at times earlier in their careers.

For years, the Penguins have heard the cries: “Get Sid a winger!” They’ve tried with guys like Guerin and Marian Hossa. They’re still hearing the cries because of the possibility the Calgary Flames will trade Jarome Iginla, who clicked with Crosby on Team Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

But it’s hard to add a superstar when there is a salary cap and you’re already trying to squeeze Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and others on the payroll, and a superstar might not be best for Crosby, anyway. It is a huge advantage for the Penguins that Crosby can produce so much with wingers who have a combined cap hit of $5.225 million.

“It’s not always the flashiest or the biggest name,” said Penguins general manager Ray Shero. “It’s just someone that works well with him.”

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Crosby does not dominate primarily because of skill. He can dazzle on the rush or make pretty plays in space, but mostly he grinds down low, buzzes around the net.

That’s why his health and conditioning are so important. He can’t coast on the perimeter. He can’t play with fear or hesitation. He has to stick his head in there, like he did Saturday against the New York Rangers, when he knocked down defenseman Dan Girardi and then scuffled with him, helmet flying off.

“He’s a power forward,” Shero said. “That’s really what he is. I mean, he’s 5-11, 200-some pounds, but he’s just so powerful.”

That’s also why Crosby works best with particular types of wingers – smart, skilled guys, but smart, skilled grinders. Like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, he thinks the game two steps ahead. But unlike Gretzky and Lemieux, he plays the game in the hard areas in a tight-checking, shot-blocking era. He has to know his wingers will go to those areas, when they will go there and that they will go there dependably so they can make plays that opposing defenses can’t stop.

If he’s two steps ahead and puts the puck where his wingers should be, but his wingers aren’t there because they’re freelancing or afraid or just not on the same page, what good is that? If he sneaks into a spot and his wingers can’t get him the puck, that’s no good, either.

“Sid likes to play with guys that he can trust,” Shero said. “He’s got that with Kunitz and Dupuis.”

Both have speed. Both create loose pucks. Both are experienced players who think the game better than when they were younger. Both are easy to read for Crosby, and both know how to read Crosby.

“They’re guys that are pretty predictable as far as what they’re going to do out there,” Crosby said. “They keep everything pretty much north-south. They’re not trying to create anything that’s not there.

“I think our game is pretty simple. I don’t think we try anything crazy. We try a play here and there, but for the most part, it’s just being aggressive and getting on pucks and working hard to win battles. We all kind of depend on each other to do that.”

Crosby makes it sound easy, and maybe it is easy for him. But it doesn’t come easy for others. Asked what it takes to play with Crosby, Guerin said “confidence.”

“It takes a little while to get used to, because you’re not used to playing with somebody like that – that can do that many things,” Guerin said. “When other guys wouldn’t be able to get it to you, he can get it to you. He says he wants the puck, and you tell him, ‘Well, there was a guy right on you.’ He’s going to say, ‘I don’t care. I can pick it up.’ So you better give it to him. You have to be confident in yourself to give it to him in certain spots. Once you figure that stuff out, he’s just a lot of fun to play with. I mean, it’s awesome.”

Kunitz nodded.

“You always have to be ready, that’s for sure,” Kunitz said. “You know you might be getting it. You know you might be driving through and then get it. You know if the defender looks away, he’s going to hit you. And sometimes it’s just going to hit you on your stick and you’ve got to be able to recognize where you are on the ice. It’s enjoyable. Hopefully you don’t get caught up watching him too often.”

* * * * *

Now, knowing all that, watch just one recent highlight:

Last Thursday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Penguins shot the puck around the boards into the offensive zone. Kunitz went in on the forecheck and won a battle with a defenseman in the left-wing corner. He passed from the end boards into the left faceoff circle.

In one motion, between two defenders, with his back to the net, Crosby took the puck on his forehand, pivoted and fired a blind, backhand pass to the far side of the net.

Dupuis, of course, was there.

He had come back off the end boards and was all alone. He had time to catch the puck on his backhand, switch to his forehand and stuff it in before the goalie could recover.

Bang, bang, bang. Score. The Penguins tied the game in the third period, 1-1, and went on to win, 3-1.

“It’s just Sid knowing everything on the ice,” Dupuis said. “It has nothing to do with me.”

Well, yes and no.

A play that took seconds really took weeks and months and years.

Why didn’t Crosby stay higher while the puck was up for grabs? Why did he go to that spot to get the pass from Kunitz?

“Kunie was there to create a loose puck and give it to me,” Crosby said.

“He knows we’ll try to win our battles as much as we can,” Dupuis said. “You can’t jump there if that play’s never done. You need to stay behind, so if the puck turns over, you can go back the other way. But if that play’s done over and over, you start trusting it.”

Why did Crosby know where Dupuis was?

“I didn’t now exactly where his stick was, but I knew he’d be coming out from that side,” Crosby said. “I think it’s just, you play with guys, you get used to them doing certain things.”

“We’ve played together quite a bit,” Dupuis said, “and he knows I’ll come back there.”

Why was Dupuis ready for a quick, blind, backhand pass that caught the Leafs by surprise?

He smiled.

“You have to be ready all the time,” he said.

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