Right now, Crosby at the top of his game

January, 20, 2010

PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby is making a lot of people eat crow these days. You know, the people who said he wasn't a good goal scorer.

Second in the NHL with 32 goals in 50 games entering Thursday night's clash with rival Washington, the 22-year-old Penguins captain is only seven goals shy of the career-high mark of 39 he set during his rookie season in 2005-06 and is on pace to reach the fabled 50-goal plateau.

"It kind of shocked me, I always thought he was more of a passer," Washington Capitals star defenseman Mike Green said rather honestly Wednesday night. "But he's proving he can score a lot of goals. That just means we have to prepare a little different against him and make sure he's not shooting and keep him away from the net."

And that's exactly the point from Crosby's point of view. He came into this season wanting to give the opposition something else to stress about. He wasn't sure he'd score more goals, but he promised himself he'd shoot the puck more.

"Whether I was shooting and it was going in, or whether I was just shooting, it's still something to keep in the back of their mind," said Crosby. "It was just trying to be less predictable, that's the main thing. The more you can add to your game, the harder it is to defend.

"There's going to be really tight games where you might get two chances," continued Crosby. "You got to make sure that you're dangerous from those areas. You have to have more tools, and that's something I worked on and I'm fortunate that the puck has gone in. I've gotten some bounces."

Crosby is also on pace for a career-high 308 shots on goal, currently sitting fourth in the NHL with 188 shots. More shots, more goals.

Some people are attributing the uptake in goals to his new stick. He was forced to change when his manufacturer stopped making his old stick. I remember talking to Crosby about it this past September in New York, and while he joked about it, you could tell he was a little stressed, as well. Hockey players, but especially superstar players, are a little maniacal about the tools of their trade. Turns out, he needn't have worried. The new stick is just fine, thank you.

The whole goal-scoring thing isn't totally a new phenomenon. Somewhat lost in the euphoria of winning the Stanley Cup last season and teammate Evgeni Malkin being named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP is the fact that Crosby led all NHL playoff snipers with 15 goals in 24 games. So while even he says his goal-scoring frame of mind has a new twist this season, it's pretty obvious he was going to the net with regularity last spring, as well.

Either way, it's just the latest step in his continued development. He focused real hard on faceoffs over the past year and got much better in that department, improving to a 58.1 percent faceoff win rate so far this season (tops for the Penguins) compared with 51.3 last season.

He's only 22 and continues to find areas where he wants to improve. Scary thought.

"With each year, you try to improve on things," said Crosby. "I think your defensive game, you always have to work on that. It's a continued effort. There's going to be spans during the season where your defensive game is not there and you develop bad habits for whatever reason. The biggest thing with each year is that you become more aware of that stuff and you become aware of what you need to do and where you need to be. You become more consistent at it."

I know a lot of the readers of this Web site are sick and tired of reading about Crosby. But I'm telling you, I don't think he has ever played as well as he is right now.

"I don't know, that's hard to say," Crosby responded when asked that question by another reporter after Wednesday's practice. "Sometimes you're playing good hockey and you're not getting points. Sometimes the puck is bouncing your way and you get points. But I am feeling pretty good, that's the most important thing. I leave it up to other people to decide."

With Malkin struggling for stretches this season, top defenseman Sergei Gonchar injured for a while and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury going through a slump last month, Crosby has been the glue for this Penguins team.

Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Sedin, Ryan Miller, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton make excellent Hart Trophy candidates so far, but Crosby is right there with them right now.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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