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The last time Sidney Crosby earned an instigator penalty against the Florida Panthers, it was his infamous fight off the faceoff against Brett McLean. That was a brawl born out of frustration; his fight on Sunday was a captain asserting himself after a dangerous hit on his Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin from Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Ballard:

If the Panthers announcers think that's "cleaning someone's clock," then there must be some filthy timepieces in South Florida -- that was a bunch of missed punches between two guys with face shields, before Sidney tackled him. The Hockey Fights smarts give Ballard the edge, but by default.

But the action's irrelevant in the fight, which occurred in the first period of the Panthers' critical 4-2 win over the Penguins; it's the ancillary stuff that matters, and the reaction to this brawl goes one of two ways: Either Crosby's the latest in a series of unfortunate scraps after clean hits that has marred the season, or his dropping the gloves at that moment in a tie game was a laudable act of leadership from a young captain.

It's a hell of a lot more Column B than Column A, that's for sure.

Look at the screen cap from the Ballard hit; it's a split-second decision. What player is going to look at his teammate (and, in this case, the top scorer in the League) with his skates where his head should be and not think about dropping the gloves to avenge him? If nothing else, Crosby was trying to refuse the momentum from that hit, which the Panthers players later claimed carried them to victory.

We've said all we intend to say here about the marketing of Crosby as a hero or villain, although instigating a fight on the road after a clean check could obviously factor into the thesis. The focus should be on the ice, where Crosby's added an undeniable grittiness and feistiness to his leadership this season that's damn impressive for a still-maturing captain.

Did you catch Bill Guerin watching Crosby wrestle with Ballard? That's the guy you figured would be the one to take on Ballard, and yet it's Crosby who arrived first. Guerin's watching his team's meal ticket perform a service that is, let's face it, above the call of duty. And that's inspiring for any star player, as long the actions are understandable and it's not detrimental to the team.

It's been a challenging year for Crosby, and he keeps taking on the challenges. While watching a healthy Evgeni Malkin roll through the postseason is currently the most anticipated aspect of the Pittsburgh Penguins' expected participation, watching how Crosby tops last year's 27 points in 20 games and leads this team is nearly equally intriguing.

UPDATE (Monday, 9:47 a.m. EST) -- Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has comments from both Sid and Ballard this morning. Good context, good insight:

"I thought the hit was a little low," said Crosby, who received a two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct in addition to the five-minute major he and Ballard were each given for fighting. Malkin said he was not hurt on the hit, which he called "fine."

Ballard said the hit "was clean" and was not surprised Crosby came to Malkin's defense. "They were on the power play, so they didn't have a bunch of tough guys out there," he said. "He's their captain, and he understands that no matter who it is, you have to do something. He's an intense player, competitive. At that point of the game, that was pretty much the right thing to do."

Again, Crosby's done some silly things in an effort to inspire or gain a measure of revenge -- the fight off the face-off, the infamous "speed-bagging" against Atlanta. And we're no fans of fights after clean hits. But Crosby thought it was a borderline hit, and it wasn't exactly against Tyler Kennedy. So it was a captain doing what captains are supposed to do.

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