It was as recently as last December, during tryouts for the world junior hockey tournament, when Nathan MacKinnon allowed that he didn't really know Sidney Crosby all that well personally.
Crosby is eight years his senior, and though they both hail from the same community, Cole Harbour, N.S., Crosby was already immersed in his NHL career by the time MacKinnon was identified as the next great thing to emerge from the Canadian junior ranks. Accordingly, their paths didn't cross much at all.
MacKinnon said he knew of Crosby – "a cool guy to be around, definitely not buddies" – more than he actually knew Crosby.
All that changed this summer, however, after MacKinnon became the second resident of the small Nova Scotia community to go first overall in the NHL entry draft. The two trained together; they are represented by the same player agent; and they did a memorable commercial for Reebok International Ltd., which went viral on YouTube: the two of them picking off water bottles, perched atop a net, with wrist shots, Crosby eventually shattering the glass with his final attempt.
So there was a hint of familiarity on Monday, when the two clashed for the first time as professionals, with MacKinnon's Colorado Avalanche paying a visit to Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins at the Consol Energy Center. It was a matchup of two 7-1-0 teams that both play an exciting open brand of hockey.
Unhappily, it didn't quite live up to the hype – largely because the circumstances of the game meant Crosby and MacKinnon were rarely seen on the ice together.
This was, first and foremost, a function of their different roles on the team.
Crosby is the Penguins' defined, bona fide No. 1 centre and eats up big minutes, especially on a night when the Avalanche couldn't stay out of the penalty box in the first period. By contrast, the Avalanche is using the 18-year-old MacKinnon judiciously, shielding him from overly challenging matchups by playing him as their third-line centre – someone who isn't used at this stage of his career to kill penalties.
It meant, for example, in the opening period, Crosby played more than seven minutes and manufactured plenty of scoring chances on the power play, only to be denied by goaltender Jean-Sébastien Giguère, who stole the show. MacKinnon, meanwhile, played sparingly – a total of 1 minute 34 seconds, although he did engineer the first shot on goal by his team, 13:15 into play.
Overall, the Penguins dominated the play territorially, but their high-powered offence was stymied by Giguère, keeping the game scoreless until Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog scored at the 5:26 mark of the second period, coming out of the penalty box.
From there, the Penguins' high-powered offence pressed and pressed, but couldn't break the shutout. It finished 1-0 for Colorado, with Giguère getting his second shutout of the season, making 34 saves.
The Avalanche drafted MacKinnon largely on the say-so of his new head coach, Patrick Roy, who'd watched him closely in the QMJHL these past two years and saw something that went beyond the mere stats: MacKinnon had a knack of raising his game in the key moments, often a quality that sets the elite players apart from run-of-the-mill NHLers.
MacKinnon shone at different times during last year's QMJHL playoffs and he's off to a solid start in his NHL career as well – with a goal and seven points in his first eight games – but there weren't a lot of opportunities to shine Monday.
Crosby, of course, has set the bar high – with a Stanley Cup championship and an Olympic gold medal already under his belt. The No. 1 overall pick by Pittsburgh in 2005 was leading the league with 17 points through the first eight games and had the Penguins off to their best home start (6-0-0) since 1994-95.
Crosby was leading the league in scoring by a wide margin last season, when he broke his jaw after a shot by teammate Brooks Orpik was deflected up into his face. It took Tampa Bay Lightning winger Marty St. Louis the better part of a month to overhaul Crosby for the scoring title (which in turn, likely cost Crosby what would have been his second NHL MVP award).
But Crosby, prior to Monday, was averaging more than two points a game – and no one has managed to duplicate that feat over the course of a full season since his boss and former landlord Mario Lemieux did in 1995-96 (161 points in 70 games).
The NHL is a different beast since that wide-open era, so the odds seem long that Crosby can sustain that scoring pace, even if he stays healthy.
On Monday, Crosby manufactured all sorts of chances, but couldn't get anything to go. That will happen occasionally, with or without the eyes of Cole Harbour, watching with rapt attention.
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