- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

By the time the Pittsburgh Penguins hit the ice for practice Sunday at Verizon Center, Washington Capitals goaltender Simeon Varlamov’s lunging stick save on Sidney Crosby had been replayed ad nauseam on highlight shows.

Crosby praised Varlamov for the save Saturday. He talked about moving on and forgetting the shot - and a day later, he set to work on his usual day-after ritual: re-enacting, with a different ending, all the chances he missed the night before, including the one Varlamov batted away.

“Usually, you’re not working on an open net,” the Penguins center told reporters. “But I had to.”

In the stratosphere Crosby’s trying to reach, perfectionist tics like these are part of the job. They’re the lifeblood of those in the 99th percentile, trying to eradicate impurities from their game one drill at a time.

So is the ritual of shuttering lofty expectations, particularly when the promise of youth is traded for a more thorough, if less riveting, approach to the game.

Crosby endured criticism this year for scoring only 33 goals among his 103 points. Playing at warp speed sells tickets and sates commentators; completeness and attention to detail do not. And yet it’s the game Crosby’s playing this year that those close to him are convinced will eventually get his name etched on Lord Stanley’s Cup.

“[He’s grown] in every situation,” said Penguins center Jordan Staal, who has played with Crosby since 2006. “He’s stronger defensively and just making the right plays for the team. Point totals don’t matter a whole lot when your best player is working hard and doing the right things to keep our team momentum going. I would take that over a couple points every night.”

Analysts say he’s better on faceoffs, more willing to be physical and placing a higher priority on killing penalties and blocking shots.

In the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he has scored four goals, three of them coming on rebounds as he matched Caps left wing Alex Ovechkin’s hat-trick ante during the Penguins’ Game 2 loss Monday.

“He’s dynamite on draws. He hits. He blocks shots. He’s had two fights. I don’t think [this year] is a downer,” said CBC commentator Don Cherry, who had criticized Crosby in the past for lobbying referees too often. “He’s playing for the team 100 percent. I think it’s the best year he’s ever had.”

Said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma: “I think he’s matured as a player, definitely.”

So where’s the criticism coming from? For one, Crosby has had to share his star with Evgeni Malkin, the Russian center the Penguins took in the 2004 draft, the year before they selected Crosby. Crosby debuted a year before Malkin in 2005-06, but the last two years Malkin has scored more points than his teammate.

“He is a great player, but obviously Malkin had a better year. That’s maybe why [some view Crosby’s year as a disappointment],” Caps center Nicklas Backstrom said. “They have two very good players, and maybe [the media] says Malkin is better, but I can’t really say.”

Then there’s Ovechkin, whose game centers on acrobatic goals, electric celebrations and toothless smiles. Ovechkin and Crosby have had more than one Magic Johnson-Larry Bird comparison, and it’s possible Ovechkin’s captivating style of play and his fun-loving persona could cast him as showstopper Magic to Crosby’s more taciturn Bird.

Ovechkin is now routinely mentioned in highlight shows as the best player in the world. He scored 65 goals last year, while Crosby missed a third of the season with a high-ankle sprain. This year, the Caps star outscored Crosby by seven points, finishing second to Malkin with 110 points while again leading the league in goals.

Finally - and this is as central to Crosby’s plight as anything - there’s the curse of unrealistic expectations.

He came into the league touted as the successor to nine-time MVP Wayne Gretzky, who said Crosby could break his records. That, of course, doesn’t take into account the defensive growth in the game that has made 100 points a banner year and Gretzky’s 200-point seasons practically untouchable.

“I don’t think [150 points] is even realistic,” Caps center Boyd Gordon said. “Who knows, though - maybe. I would take a 103-point season every year.”

What would get the critics off Crosby’s back - at least for a while - is a Stanley Cup. He has been to the finals once, in the Penguins’ six-game loss to the Detroit Red Wings last year. Since then, he has adjusted to a revolving door of linemates in the wake of the departures of Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone, seen coach Michel Therrien get fired and fielded questions about a feud with Ovechkin following a much-publicized shoving match in a Caps win Feb. 22.

The two new linemates Pittsburgh acquired for him, Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, have yet to score in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Malkin has been virtually nonexistent. It has been Crosby alone with his four goals (and the near miss against Varlamov in Game 1) seemingly trying to keep his team within reach of Ovechkin and the Caps.

“I’m sure it’s entertaining for people to watch,” Crosby said of trading hat tricks with Ovechkin in Game 2. “If I were to look at it from a fan’s point of view, obviously that would be the case. As a player, you don’t like seeing a guy on the other team get a hat trick - it’s usually not a good sign. But at the same time, I realize that people are entertained by that. But at the end of the day, as a player, you want to win games.”

At this point, winning games - and besting Ovechkin - is all that will silence Crosby’s detractors. Maybe then they would appreciate how nuanced his game is becoming.

It’s not likely to happen, though. Because in this sport, handling adversity is as big a part of the day-to-day as stamping out mistakes.

“He’s had an unbelievable year,” NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said. “He went through a coaching transition. His faceoff play has improved unbelievably. He’s much more responsible defensively, He’s killing penalties now. He wasn’t doing that before, which drove me crazy. It’s a maturation process. He should be playing college or juniors [at his age]. He’s playing in a men’s league, and you have to be able to handle that.”

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