“I think he actually is,” Shero replied. “It’s hard to believe, but true. When he first got hurt at the  Winter Classic, I think he was playing his best hockey, and now that he’s come back, you see the gains he’s made in his all-around game. I get asked all the time: ‘Is he the best?’ “Let’s be honest. There are a lot of good players, but Sidney to us is a 200-foot player, who takes pride in his defensive game. He’s a go-to guy on faceoffs. He chips in on the penalty kill and he’s somewhat relied upon in offensive situations.”
Shero paused to see whether the gag hit the mark: Yes, the Penguins do somewhat rely on Crosby offensively.
“But you know what? He’s 25 and his game is growing,” the GM continued. “You get to see the highlights of him here and there, but I get to see him in game situations and in practises every day and it’s pretty amazing to watch.”
Crosby is indeed in the midst of another fine season. At the halfway point, he was the NHL’s leading scorer, just as he was the runaway scoring leader last year, before he broke his jaw in a freak injury and was unable to play in the final month of the regular season. Over the past three years, Crosby has missed more games (113) than he played (99) and thus takes nothing for granted in terms of his health.
“It was just important for me to play a full season,” he said, “because it’s been a while. With the lockout, I missed a lot of games and then with the broken jaw, I missed some time there. Then, obviously, with it being an Olympic year, my goals and my focus were on making sure I was consistent and making sure I was ready come the Olympics, too.”
The Olympics: An intense rivalry
Canada and Russia, of course, are not the only nations with their sights set on hockey gold in Sochi: The United States, Sweden and Finland are also contenders.
But the Canada-Russia rivalry remains intense, and on the Russian side Malkin is “the top guy,” Penguins linemate Neal said. “Being able to play with him every day and play on a line with him is special. His ability to score goals and to distribute the puck – his playmaking abilities – are the best in the world. He’s a special player and a special guy.”
Malkin described the one-sided loss to Canada in 2010 as water under the bridge, noting: “Yeah, of course it’s a big loss for us, a big loss for the country. It’s great motivation for Sochi, but it’s all hockey. We lost one game. Of course, it’s bad, but it’s Canada. They did a great job, they play at home, they beat us, it’s a good game.
“It’s hockey. Sometimes, you lose. Sometimes, you win. … I try not to think about [the possibility of losing in Sochi]. I know it’s Russia. The country loves hockey. It’s a big deal for us, a big deal for the whole people of Russia. You just try to a show a good game and show 100-per-cent work and work together.”
Crosby will bear his own burden as captain of the talent-laden Canadian squad, of whom much is expected as well. But he has thoughts about Malkin – and expects him to excel.
“If I know him the way I think I do, he always raises his level at key moments,” Crosby said, “so I would expect him to be at his best. The fact that both he and Ovechkin can kind of share that pressure is probably a good thing for both of them. But there are a lot of good players on that team. … “It’s tough for one guy to feel that entire pressure, but that being said, yeah, that [pressure] is going to be something they have to deal with the way we did as Canadians in Vancouver.”
With a report from David Ebner in Vancouver
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