- Scott Burnside, NHL
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ITTSBURGH -- No more mashed-up meat and potatoes. No more near-catastrophic encounters with pieces of fried cheese.
A kind of clarity of both sight and diet are what mark Sidney Crosby on the eve of the Eastern Conference finals, and it marks yet another transformation for the world's best player. It is a transformation that confronts the Boston Bruins in their quest to knock off the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins, and it is a transformation that speaks to a larger evolution of Crosby and of this team.
But first, the mashed-up meat and potatoes.
After the Penguins knocked aside the Ottawa Senators in five games in the second round, Crosby -- who is tied with teammate Pascal Dupuis and Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp with a playoffs-high seven goals -- was given clearance to remove from his helmet the cumbersome plastic shield that had been protecting his jaw, which was broken by a Brooks Orpik shot March 30.
It was, needless to say, a welcome relief, even if the safety feature had done little to disrupt Crosby's play. He has 15 points in 10 postseason games.
"It feels good now," Crosby told ESPN.com this week. "The first couple of days, I was probably thinking about it going in front of the net and stuff like that. You just feel so much more open. It's hard to believe. You get used to not having it, then you have it and you get used to having it. That's just kind of the way it is. It feels much more normal now."
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Not that things are exactly normal with hockey's most familiar jaw, his teeth (or what's left of them) still a jumble. Crosby said he doesn't look inside his mouth much; he knows what's in there -- and what isn't.
"It's all healed now," Crosby said. "The main thing that they were kind of looking at the whole time was I had this big incision inside my mouth all along the gum line and my front teeth, and they had to make sure that was all healed. It doesn't take much to pull on that incision and stuff like that, so that was just something they wanted to make sure sealed up. And that sealed up good, so I don't really have any worries about it."
And so he has returned to a normal diet, which meant putting away the blender he had been forced to use to keep up his normal intake of calories and protein and simply digging into a big piece of meat.
What did he miss most during his convalescence?
"I think just a steak. A nice steak," he said. "That was nice when I was finally able to eat that. I had kind of blended anything I could early on and got to the point after a couple of weeks where I think I blended ribs and mashed potatoes, and it was disgusting. It was gross. At that point, I knew I really wanted solid food. It wasn't much longer after that that I started being able to eat stuff."
And is the story true that he nearly choked on a piece of fried mozzarella?
"I did choke on a mozzarella stick," Crosby said. "I thought I'd be OK with that a few weeks in. I couldn't really chew, but I figured it was pretty soft. I forgot how thick the cheese is, and it was pretty hot. I was sitting next to Mo [Brenden Morrow]. We were out eating, and he looked over and I was pulling this cheese out of my throat. It was pretty funny."
Even before the Penguins advanced to the East finals for the first time since 2009, there was an easiness about Crosby in the team's locker room, a different countenance than in previous playoff runs. The moniker Sid The Kid has long since lost its relevance to him. He lingers more often to chat. Always unfailingly polite and patient, he is engaged on a different level now. Maybe it's the passage of time and all that implies vis-a-vis maturity and growth.
He concedes that, for a moment, he allowed himself to wonder "why me?" as he was visiting with a doctor after his jaw was broken.
"When I was sitting there and talking to the doctor and he was telling me how long it was going to be, I think that thought went through my mind," Crosby said. "Like, 'You've got to be kidding me. This is really going to be four to six weeks?' When it first happened, and when I went in there and he said, 'You're going to have surgery, we need to fix this,' I said, 'You're really keeping me?' It just wasn't registering that I was going to have to stay overnight. I was just thinking, 'Oh, I'm just going to have to stitch a couple of things up, and I'll be able to go home and probably be back in a few weeks or not even.'
"So, yeah, definitely that thought crossed my mind. But early on. After that, dwelling on it or getting upset about it is not going to fix anything. So you just try to make the most of whatever you can and enjoy a good bowl of soup and try not to get too upset about it."
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Maybe there's more at play than simply a boy who has become a man in front of the hockey world.
Maybe this is the kind of growth that comes from someone who is driven to grow and evolve, who is keenly aware of the fine details that go into such change. This is, after all, a player who has identified elements of his game that he wants to improve upon -- faceoffs, his shot, scoring more -- and has been successful in making those changes. Perhaps, then, this more self-contained Crosby, a man in full if you will, is the product of that kind of will.
No one since Wayne Gretzky has lived with the scrutiny Crosby has in the sometimes myopic world of hockey. That scrutiny has followed him through great successes: trips to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, the latter ending with Crosby holding the Cup aloft at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. It has followed him through a golden goal at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 and through months of rehabilitation from concussion-related symptoms.
That scrutiny followed him through last spring's disappointing first-round exit against the Philadelphia Flyers and is following him again this spring, and the Penguins once again seem to have found a championship groove.
One NHL coach told ESPN.com this week that he felt that the Penguins, and Crosby in particular, had been "hardened" by recent playoff losses and that their play this spring has reflected that.
"Sid has been really gritty, good to see," the coach said. "He is a great player, but he used to cheat to score. Now he doesn't.
"He stops on pucks, plays better defensively. Losing the last three years has hardened that team."
Crosby doesn't disagree that the Penguins' disappointments since 2009 have altered the team in some fundamental way.
"Hopefully we learned from it," he said. "Yeah, I think that's fair to say. I think when you have those expectations and there's certain things that happen, you have to be able to learn from them and you can't accept that that's OK and you can't say, 'Oh, that was just a weird series last year against Philadelphia.'
"You have to find out why and what needs to be better, and I think we were all pretty honest with how we evaluated that and what we needed to improve. The bottom line is that you've got to give yourself a chance to win. I don't think we did that in those previous series. Even if you give yourself a chance, there's no guarantees, [but] you've got to at least do that."
There have been more than a few times when it has appeared as if Crosby was playing as well as he ever has, smashed teeth or not. He has scored a handful of highlight-reel goals. He has driven to the net, drawn penalties and found open teammates with pucks you swear would need seeing-eye dogs to reach their targets.
But if you talk to teammates and observers, it's not the highlights that are so impressive; it's the smaller, more subtle parts of the game.
Morrow and Crosby were teammates at the Vancouver Games, but Morrow said he didn't realize until joining the Penguins from the Dallas Stars before the trade deadline all that goes into Crosby's game.
"You see on highlights the little snippets of what he does, the finishing of the play, but it's the grunt work, the things in the corner where you see tree trunks on him," Morrow said, referencing Crosby's leg strength and low center of gravity. "He doesn't get knocked down. He's so strong in corners, and I think the little plays -- how good he is at the little details and not just the ESPN highlights that you see -- that's something I didn't know about him just from watching from afar."
Matt Cooke has been with the Penguins since their championship season in 2008-09. Has he noticed a difference in Crosby this spring?
"He's got less teeth," Cooke quipped. "Maybe makes him lighter."
For the rugged winger, though, what continues to impress is Crosby's ability to do it all at full speed and to use that speed everywhere on the ice.
"Most times, those things he does at full speed I wouldn't try standing still," Cooke said. "I think for me the thing that separates him from most other superstars is his drive to be the best, his desire to win every battle, win every puck, win every faceoff. The best way I can describe it to you is he's got the will and drive of a fourth-liner as a superstar."
Former NHL general manager Craig Button, now a national broadcast analyst, said he has seen a refining of Crosby's focus this spring.
"I have noticed that his attention to detail is excellent," Button said. "That attention manifests itself in different ways, but I think it sets an example for the team.
"It's both physical and mental. Physical in not forcing things and understanding that the play attempted this time may not be there, but he's probing for the next time. Mental in not letting opponents get under his skin. Last year versus Philadelphia, he got unsettled to a certain extent, but this year he's focused solely on the task at hand."
Crosby acknowledges that there is a constant evolution, a constant evaluation of his game and re-evaluation.
"I think constantly you evaluate, and I think, even game to game and series to series, you need to adjust depending on who you're playing against. You have to be ready for certain things.
"I'm not saying you have to totally change your game, because that's not what you need to do at all. You have to make sure that you believe in your game, and I think we all do. But individually, there are differences between playing against a [John] Tavares or a [Zdeno] Chara or a [Kyle] Turris; that's just the way it is. So you've got to be able to adjust and play to your strengths."
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If you took a snapshot of Crosby circa 2008-09, would it look dramatically different from today?
Certainly Crosby remembers those times as a kind of blur, as one entity, really.
"Those two years felt like one year," he said. "I played so much hockey I think, if anything, just by the time we got to '08-09, it was just repetition. It just felt so normal to be there, even though it wasn't normal. I mean, you're in the conference finals, the Stanley Cup finals, but it just felt like a continuation of what was happening prior."
Funny how time goes. In hockey terms, those seasons were long ago, even though the core of the Penguins team that was involved in those grand successes remains intact. And those days have little to do with the fact that the Penguins are again four wins from a trip to the big dance.
Not that Crosby is looking that far ahead.
"We all know the scenario," he said. "But I think that's as far as it goes. That's how I approach it. If Dougie [Murray] needs to be able to think about what these four wins are going to mean, and that's going to motivate him, then that's great. I think everyone's got their own way of dealing with it.
"For me, I think just because the playoffs are so emotional for me, it's much easier just to focus on game by game and not get caught up in anything else."