Sidney Crosby finally back at full strength for Penguins

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Sometimes it was getting together with a handful of teammates four days a week for a series of informal drills. Sometimes it was traveling to Denver and Phoenix to compete against other NHLers. And once it was playing goaltender — no, really — in a deck hockey game, where the 2007 NHL MVP anonymously hid behind his mask until the final minutes when one of the referees figured it out.

It’s like having LeBron James in your pickup basketball game at the local Y. And perhaps it’s a sign the sometimes attention-averse Crosby is ready to open up. He was a constant in front of the cameras during the lockout and even got involved in the bargaining process that eventually set the framework for the new collective bargaining agreement.

The stream of questions about the labor situation have been replaced with ones more comfortable but also no easier to answer. Entering his eighth season, can Crosby be the player he was 25 months ago, when he was at the peak of his considerable powers?

Even he doesn’t know, though he understands why he’s being asked. It’s what happens when the bar you’ve set for yourself seems almost impossibly high.

“I don’t think he’s going to get away from outside people looking at things like that,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “But in a shortened season, really individual statistics, career highs aren’t going to be something that you’re going to see a lot of. No one is going to be going after Wayne Gretzky’s point total in a season.

“It’s not going to happen.”

Maybe, but given the relentless urgency Crosby brought to the ice during the first couple days of training camp, there’s little doubt he is eager to prove — to himself above all others — that he really is back.

During a one-on-one drill on Tuesday, Crosby’s stick was a blur as he battled against a defenseman. After a series of dekes went nowhere, he curled behind the net and stuffed a backhand past goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

The goal earned an ovation from the hundreds of fans who played hooky to take in a free practice. It also earned a somewhat disgusted stick poke from Fleury, who has grown used to that kind of thing through the years.

“Sid looks unbelievable,” forward James Neal said. “Every time I’ve skated with him, even when he’s been hurt, he’s been unbelievable. He’s a special player and his ability to do things at a high speed and shoot the puck and pass and the moves he makes are unbelievable.”

To everyone, it seems, but Crosby.

His biggest critic is the one he looks at in the mirror each morning. And at the moment, all that guy is thinking about is leading the Penguins back to the Cup. Not how he’s going to feel in the morning. Not whether venturing to the net with three players in the way at full speed is a good idea. Not about when or if the sometimes searing pain that changed the arc of his career — not to mention his life — will attack him again one random morning.

“The pressure I feel most times is pressure I put on myself,” Crosby said. “I think that’s always kind of been the case and at least I have high expectations and our team has high expectations. I don’t think that ever really changes.”

Such is the curse — but also the blessing — of being the face for an entire sport.

After two years of worry, that face is smiling. At last.

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