Let the others have their names pencilled in.
Sidney Crosby’s name has been chiselled in, burnt in, blasted in, voted in, cheered in and even prayed in:
Captain, centre, first line of Team Canada, defender of the gold medal in men’s hockey at the fast-approaching Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
The man who scored Canada’s “Golden Goal” – even if it wasn’t a thing of intrinsic beauty – in Vancouver four years ago, is now four years older, a still-youthful 26, and some would say four years better than when he led his country to Olympic glory.
Fresh off a goal-and-two-assist Saturday night as the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Calgary Flames 4-3, fresh off a run in which on Monday he was named one of the NHL three stars of the week (St. Louis Blues forward Chris Stewart and Colorado Avalanche centre Matt Duchene were the others), Crosby arrived in Ottawa Monday with both his game and his team streaking.
The Pittsburgh Penguins met the Ottawa Senators after having won seven games in a row; Crosby, on a 10-game scoring binge, was leading the league with 54 points (20 goals, 34 assists) in 38 games.
In other words, he is running away with the NHL scoring title just as he was three seasons ago – having a career year right up until the moment that remarkable career was nearly ended by a concussion suffered during the 2011 Winter Classic and further aggravated a few days later when he unwisely played again.
As the third anniversary of that New Year’s Daydeliberate hit/accidental clip (take your choice) approaches, Crosby is back playing hockey that leaves Pittsburgh fans breathless – and leaves his Canadian fans holding their breath.
If the gold medal is to be successfully defended, he will need to be still at the top of his game in Sochi.
That Crosby’s Penguins are doing so well heading into the Christmas break is impressive, given the exceptional number of injuries the team has suffered this year.
The Penguins came into Ottawa in first place in the eastern conference, leading the Boston Bruins by five points. Yet Pittsburgh had nine players on the injured reserve list, including stalwart defencemen Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi. As well, top-scoring forward Evgeni Malkin missed his fifth game in a row Monday while still recovering from injury.
The team, however, has held up brilliantly, with oft-maligned goaltender Marc-André Fleury posting a most-impressive 21-8-1 record with a sparkling .923 save percentage, and a bunch of minor-league replacements shining in their own right.
“We’ve done a good job in finding ways to win and survive without a number of guys who play key minutes,” says Crosby. “The energy and enthusiasm they’ve brought with some guys out, it’s been good for our team … that energy’s kind of trickled all through our lineup.
“Everyone has tried to raise their level a bit – everyone from goaltending right on out.”
That said, the conversation shifts easily to the goaltending of Marc-AndreFleury, and the play of another Canadian on the team who Crosby would dearly love to see head for Sochi with him in another six weeks.
Fleury was on Team Canada in Vancouver, though it was Roberto Luongo, not Fleury, tending Canada’s net in the gold-medal final against the U.S. Fleury had then been considered the national goaltender of the future, a Stanley Cup winner and then only 25. Since then, however, his star had fallen through some playoff collapses and at times unsteady play, though none of which has been apparent this season.
“It’s a little frustrating,” Crosby says of the widespread impression of Fleury no longer being on the Team Canada radar. “When you see him night in and night out and the way he’s playing this year …
“That’s just the nature of his position. But I think he’s been really solid for us, especially with the schedule and how often you have to play. That’s not easy for a goalie. He should definitely be in the conversation.”
The other Pittsburgh player the guaranteed (if healthy) captain of Team Canada is promoting is his winger, Chris Kunitz, a Regina native who played U.S. college hockey, was never drafted and never really blossomed came into bloomuntil he began playing with Crosby.
This year Kunitz, who will turn 35 during the Winter Games, is already at the 20-goal mark, same as Crosby, and his 39 points are behind only Crosby and Russian star Malkin, both of whom are locks for their respective Olympic teams, Canada and Russia.
In the biased opinion of his centre, Kunitz deserves the call.
“He’s shown that the last couple of years, especially,” says Crosby. “I don’t want to get into the whole Team Canada debate. I know it’s going on every day in Canada, as it should be, but I think his play speaks for itself and I don’t think that’s going to go unnoticed so far as [Team Canada management is] concerned.
“I’m sure they’ll look at everything. And the fact that we play together probably helps – familiarity’s always important.”
Crosby knows that as Sochi draws nearer, each Pittsburgh Penguins trip to Canada is going to be less about the Penguins and more about the Olympics. He concedes that he himself has been thinking about it more lately, even while saying that the priority is his NHL team.
As the outside pressures mount, he says he is increasingly grateful for the experience of Vancouver four years ago.
“I don’t think it could have been talked about any more than it was,” he says. “So, I think just going through that once probably helps. And the fact that we are playing so much, you don’t have time to think that much. You think about playing your games and, obviously, you want to be playing well going to the Olympics.
“We all understand that it’s going to be talked about in Canada all the time – and when you come here you just sort of deal with it.”
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