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Three Periods: Crosby's 500-game checkpoint; Subban and Sochi; Giroux bounces back

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Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Sidney Crosby’s 500th NHL game; P.K. Subban’s Olympic chances; Claude Giroux’s confidence; Sean Couturier’s hot line; plus notes on Team Canada’s roster selection process, Steven Stamkos’ rehab, Henrik Lundqvist’s contract and the salary cap.

FIRST PERIOD: Taking stock as Sidney Crosby hits 500 NHL games

Of all the things Sidney Crosby has accomplished, reaching 500 regular-season NHL games seems pretty pedestrian. Until you stop and consider a couple of things. Like, wait a minute, isn’t he Sid the Kid, or wasn’t he not that long ago? He’s 26 already?

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Sidney Crosby has gone from 'Sid The Kid' to a 26-year-old NHL vet with 500 games under his belt. (USA Today)

“He’s getting old in the league now,” said Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. “He’s getting upward in age.”

On the other hand, shouldn’t he be on 600-something by now?

“Looking back,” Crosby said, “I probably think about how many I’ve missed more than playing 500.”

Crosby has missed 152 regular-season games since he entered the NHL in 2005-06 – 101 of them when he battled concussion problems in the second half of 2010-11 and through most of 2011-12. He missed 34 games because of the lockout last season, too. It has taken him almost exactly three years to go from his 400th game (Dec. 6, 2010, against the New Jersey Devils) to his 500th (Thursday night against the San Jose Sharks).

Injuries probably have cost Crosby at least a couple of Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player, a couple of Art Ross Trophies as the league’s scoring champion and a Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s goal-scoring champ. They cost him at least one shot at the Stanley Cup, when he sat out the 2011 playoffs, and they might have weakened him the past two playoffs.

What’s gone is gone. Crosby can never get it back. But at least 26 is not really old, and at least he’s back in form again, when things once looked so bleak that people openly wondered if he should retire.

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Actually, Crosby is better than ever, by one measure. In the 412 games he played before he first left the lineup with a concussion, he put up 215 goals and 572 points. That’s 0.52 goals per game and 1.38 points per game. In the 65 games he has played since putting his concussion problems behind him, he has put up 30 goals and 94 points. That’s 0.46 goals per game and 1.44 points per game.

Crosby is averaging 1.31 points per game this season. He entered Thursday night leading the NHL in scoring with 38 points – one ahead of teammate Evgeni Malkin, another former MVP, and six ahead of everybody else. And the best part? It wasn’t news. It was normal – a new normal.

“His numbers keep piling up,” Bylsma said.

Crosby’s regular-season career entering Thursday night: 499 games, 253 goals, 450 assists, 703 points. You wonder how much higher the numbers would be piled had he been healthy. You wonder how much higher they will pile if he stays healthy.

SECOND PERIOD: More on P.K. Subban, Team Canada and risk management

Three weeks ago, we raised the possibility that P.K. Subban, the reigning winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman, might not make Team Canada for the Sochi Olympics. It is now an even hotter topic. Some fresh tidbits and thoughts:

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P.K. Subban's Olympic candidacy has been one of the hottest topics leading up to Sochi. (USA Today)

— This is not a figment of the media’s imagination. It is real. Team Canada executives and coaches are indeed debating Subban’s risk-reward ratio. That said, people are freaking out and second-guessing a decision that hasn’t been made yet. Team Canada’s leaders are debating all kinds of players, as they should. Subban just receives more attention because of his flashy style and high profile.

— They are not debating whether Subban is an outstanding NHL defenseman. They are debating how he would fit on this particular team in this particular tournament. Team Canada will be full of outstanding NHL players. It will be stacked offensively and at right defense. The Olympics will be played on big ice, which might magnify both Subban’s positives and negatives, and the medal round will be single elimination, which means one mistake can kill you.

— Among the questions being asked internally: Would Subban play ahead of Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo? If not, does that make him a third-pair, eight-minute guy? Is he the right type of player for that role?

— Coach Mike Babcock fell in love with Doughty four years ago in Vancouver. “What I like about him is, when he creates offense, it’s not foolish,” said Babcock in December 2010. “He’s not a risk-taker, he’s a game-breaker.”

— Asked about Subban this week, Babcock said: “Who are going to be the best eight ‘D’ that we can have on Canada’s team? And so I just keep watching.” Pressed for more, he said: “I’m watching. Over time, you get to know the players pretty good, so you get a pretty good handle on what they do. And you watch to see if they’re trustworthy or not.”

— There is making the team. Then there is making the lineup. Asked about Subban last month, executive director Steve Yzerman said he didn’t want to comment on individuals, but he said: “We’re going to put out players that we can count on in both ends of the rink, because at this level if you’re not responsible – and I’m not being specific to anyone, this goes for them all – if they’re not responsible, the coaches aren’t going to put them on the ice.”

— My gut: Subban will make the team. It’s hard to say he’s not one of the eight best Canadian defensemen. But whether he plays in the medal round will come down to what Babcock sees leading up to the Olympics and perhaps in the preliminary games in Sochi. With little practice time, with so much at stake, Babcock will have to feel he can trust Subban to be a game-breaker, not a risk-taker.

THIRD PERIOD: Is Claude Giroux turning around his season?

If you know Claude Giroux, you know he’s an intense competitor, maybe too intense for his own good sometimes. “When he gets down – I’ve been around him quite a while – you can tell,” said linemate Scott Hartnell. “You go, ‘Why are you down?’ You give him a little shot. You’ve got to have fun with him.”

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Claude Giroux is scoring again after an awful start to the 2013-14 season. (AP)

Giroux was in the dumps early this season. He had suffered a hand injury in the offseason. He had scored zero goals and posted three points as the Philadelphia Flyers started 1-7-0 and went through a coaching change. He had only one goal and 10 points through 18 games.

He was a long way from being “the best player in the world,” which then-coach Peter Laviolette called him after he outdueled Crosby in the 2012 playoffs. He wasn’t putting up a point per game anymore. He wasn’t leading as the captain of the Flyers. He was going from a lock to the bubble for Team Canada.

Some of it was bad luck. Asked how often he had hit the post this season, Giroux said with a laugh: “Maybe once a game.” A lot of it was a lack of confidence and a snowball effect. “It gets frustrating,” he said. One scout thought he was hesitating, waiting a beat too long to shoot instead of letting it fly, giving defensemen and goaltenders a split-second to get into position.

But then Giroux received a text message from former Flyers captain Mike Richards, telling him to relax and play hockey. He tried to stop stressing about both the NHL and the Olympics. “I just said, ‘Screw it. Just go play hockey. Just go have fun, and everything’s going to fall in place,’ ” Giroux said.

Now Giroux has four goals and 10 points in his past 10 games. The power play has been better (three of those goals and six of those points have come with the extra man). Meanwhile, the Flyers have been better as a team (they are 9-3-1 in their past 13 games).

Giroux still hasn’t been as consistent as he needs to be from game to game and within games. On Wednesday night in Detroit, with Babcock behind the opposing bench and Yzerman in the press box, he lost his man and watched the Red Wings score on the rush. One scout thought he didn’t look as fast or as quick as usual – until he scored and got a jump in his step.

But that’s natural. “Your goal-scorers and your offensive guys, they feed off that,” said new Flyers coach Craig Berube. “That’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to score goals and make plays. When they do that, they feel good about themselves.” If Giroux starts feeling good about himself again, his game could snowball the other way.

OVERTIME: Sean Couturier’s line is clicking for the Flyers

Look who has 25 points in the last 10 games: the Flyers’ “third” line of center Sean Couturier (five goals, 10 points) and wingers Matt Read (five goals, eight points) and Steve Downie (one goal, seven points). All but three of those points have come at even strength.

Couturier is a promising two-way centerman. He has shown he can contribute offensively and handle top players defensively. But it’s hard to do both at the same time, especially when you’re still only 20 years old.

So after a slow start, Berube told Couturier to concentrate on his defense and let that generate offense. Berube also put Downie on the line after the Flyers acquired him from the Colorado Avalanche and he recovered from an injury sustained in a fight in his first game.

“I don’t think they’ve had a bad game since Downie’s come over,” Hartnell said. “They’re controlling the puck so well. They’re using their body to create space. Guys are getting open. They’re moving their feet. They’re getting chances every game.”

Couturier brings size at 6-foot-3 and solid positioning. Read brings speed and hands. Downie is strong on the wall and goes to the net.

“We’ve been having great chemistry,” Couturier said. “We seem to find each other out there and create some space for one another. We’re just keeping it simple, putting pucks on net and having guys at the net. That’s how we’re creating chances.”

SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL

— Babcock and Yzerman met Monday, and the Team Canada management group will meet over the weekend. The group will meet at least one more time after that before the roster is announced.

— Yzerman doesn't tip his hand on much, but in saying it didn't matter that Giroux and Joe Thornton didn't attend orientation camp in Calgary, he might have dropped a little hint. "There may be another player added to this team who wasn't at the camp," he said. Jamie Benn? The captain of the Dallas Stars wasn't invited, and he has seven goals and 25 points in 26 games.

— Yzerman was surprised to see Steven Stamkos walking without crutches so quickly after suffering a fractured tibia Nov. 11. But he isn’t getting ahead of himself. “It's encouraging,” he said. “But it doesn't mean he's any further ahead in the process. We understand what the rehab process is.”

— The Tampa Bay Lightning has been shut out three times in five games. Obviously the Bolts miss Stamkos, who was tied for the league lead in goals and points when he went down. “Stammer played 22 minutes a night,” said Yzerman, their GM. “It’s been a struggle to score goals lately.”

— In the end, Henrik Lundqvist backed down from his demand for a max eight-year contract, and the New York Rangers stopped holding the line at six years. As for the money, GM Glen Sather told people Lundqvist had asked for as much as $10 million a year; the Rangers didn’t want to go higher than $8 million a year. The deal: seven years, $8.5 million cap hit. Among the reactions around the league: “Wow!” “Too long, too much, but they had to do it.”

— Two quotes stuck out from the Lundqvist announcement. Sather: “It’s up to you, Henry. Now just carry us on your shoulders.” Translation: Your cap hit is $1.5 million higher than any other goalie’s. Play like it. You’ve got to.” Coach Alain Vigneault: “I think as you can tell today this was a relief for Hank.” Translation: No matter what he says, this affected his play.

— Everyone agrees the salary cap will rise. But how far and how fast? It is $64.3 million this season. Some teams think it will be in the high $60 million range next season; others think it will hit $70 million. Teams expect guidance from the league Monday and Tuesday at the board of governors meeting in Pebble Beach, Calif. Commissioner Gary Bettman has said the league projects record revenues this season but declined to give an estimate publicly.

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