With a career that’s seen him win a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal and trophies including the Art Ross, Hart and Rocket Richard – all by the grizzled age of 23 – what’s left for Penguins captain Sidney Crosby to achieve?
How about playing the best hockey of his career? Because, if you listen to his teammates, that’s exactly what’s happening right now.
“This is as good as I’ve seen him play all around,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who’s been Crosby’s teammate since he entered the NHL in 2005. “He’s had some spurts where he’s had a lot of points, stuff like that, but his defensive game and faceoffs are key, especially at key moments of the game where we need puck possession or we need a faceoff in our zone. He’s won it every time.”
That’s a tribute to Crosby’s well-documented work ethic, which consistently drives him to seek out parts of his game that could use improvement. Two summers ago, he decided to shoot more, and it paid off in 51 goals and his first Richard Trophy, which he shared with Tampa’s Steven Stamkos. Over that summer and this past one, he also focused on faceoffs and is now in the league’s top 20, winning draws at a rate of 55.4 percent.
“I don’t see a lot of stuff he does in the summer but, all of a sudden, he came back and he’s winning all of these faceoffs out of nowhere,” Orpik said. “It’s probably something he does on his own and, every day we see him, he’s probably the hardest-working guy I’ve ever seen in practice.
“You’ll probably see guys that are more talented, but not any that work harder than him.”
In addition to those other facets of Crosby’s game, he’s also racking up a few points on the offensive side. During his current, 14-game point streak – longest in the NHL this season – he’s tallied 29 points and risen to the top of the scoring race, with 44 to Stamkos’ 40.
And he’s helped his team rise to the top of the standings. The Penguins haven’t lost since November 10 and head to Columbus Saturday on an eight-game winning streak, 10-0-1 in their last 11. Pittsburgh is now second in the Eastern Conference and, at two points behind the Washington Capitals, is tied with Detroit for second overall.
“It’s really nice how he’s been getting points and helping us get wins. He’s a big part of the team being on such a good streak,” said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, whose resurgence has also been a big part of the team’s success.
“It’s something you expect from him, but we see him every day and he still amazes me, how hard he works to get better.”
Crosby’s latest offensive heroics came with his first natural hat trick Thursday against the Atlanta Thrashers, who were on a six-game winning streak themselves before running into the red-hot Penguins. It was his second hat trick in as many home games.
Typically, though, Crosby was all business in his postgame comments.
“It’s nice to see them go in. Sometimes you play well and they don’t, so you want to make the most of the chances you get,” he said. “You try not to think about the points and things; you try to evaluate your game no matter how it’s going.
“I think the team’s been playing well and, as a line [with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis], we’ve been clicking. I think it’s just a combination of that.”
Head coach Dan Bylsma couldn’t deny being a little dazzled by his young captain’s talent: “I don’t have any ways to describe [him] in a new way,” he said. “I wish I could help you out with a better adjective. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I did shake my head a couple times tonight.”
Bylsma was more impressed, however, by Crosby’s commitment in the third period against the Thrashers, when the Penguins were nursing a 3-2 lead against a good rush team that had pulled within a goal late in the second.
“We’re going to watch the replays of the goals again – he got them a couple different ways tonight – but there were lots of other clips you could watch of his game tonight, too,” Bylsma said. “Taking faceoffs and, in the third, when we’re trying to limit their opportunities, he tracks back and pushes the play to our D before they can get into the offensive zone and turn it back the other way.”
Even then, Crosby wasn’t fully satisfied with his game.
“He’s apologizing to us at the end for losing a faceoff,” Orpik said. “Obviously he expects a lot out of himself, pushes himself a lot.”
Crosby and the Penguins will have their hands full Saturday in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets have been playing good hockey. Pittsburgh native R.J. Umberger is coming off of his own recent 10-game point streak and leads the team with 19 points.
“There’s no easy games. They have some skill up front; they’re solid all the way through,” Crosby said. “And we don’t know a lot about them so, when you play [Western Conference] teams like that, hopefully that just makes us focus on our game just a little bit more.”
That’s something Crosby and the Penguins are doing pretty well right now.
“It’s a cliché, take it one at a time, but you really have to,” he said. “There’s nights where you play well and, sometimes, you’re not going to win. So I think our focus is just more on giving ourselves a chance with the way we’ve played and finding our identity, and we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”