Posted by: mdegeorge | December 8, 2010

Sid the Kid the man for red-hot Penguins

At some point, the plaudits of Sidney Crosby will reach ebb. They’ve already been meted with such regularity that they begin to lose their edge.  So we can only hope the latest round retains the merit it deserves.

Crosby currently presides over the hottest team in the NHL, with his Penguins leading the league with 40 points. The Pens have won their last 10 and have haven’t lost in regulation in 13 games.

PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 27: Sidney Crosby  of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second period goal against the Calgary Flames at Consol Energy Center on November 27, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Crosby, meanwhile, has points in 16 straight games, amassing 18 goals (including two hat tricks and three game-winners), 15 assists, and a plus-10 over that stretch.

(Quick aside: This post is quite obviously the kiss of death for both streaks. Even the lowly Maple Leafs can’t forestall the harbinger I’m placing on the Pens tonight. Just keep it in mind when you see the scores later.)

He leads the NHL with 24 goals and 48 points, each by a healthy margin, in 29 games. He’s a plus-12, which is tied for tenth in the league and third among forwards. He’s on pace for 68 goals and 136 points, both career-highs by sizable margins. It’s been part of a tremendous turnaround from an indifferent start to the season, that involved a temporary reshuffling of the goaltending hierarchy and some lackadaisical performances on home ice that resulted in defeats.

He’s accomplished it with limited assistance. Evgeni Malkin hasn’t been his old self consistently, producing in fits and starts. Since the unbeaten streak began on Nov. 12, Geno has four goals and six assists, but almost half of that came when he potted a hat trick and added a helper in the 4-2 win at Atlanta November 13. He’s missed the last two games with a knee injury, and could be out for a handful more contests.

This generation of great Penguins’ teams, which have visited the Stanley Cup Finals two of the last three years, has always used depth up the middle as its hallmark. They’ve been anything but deep this season. Malkin’s had a down season by his lofty standards, and too often looks to be gliding lethargically through games. Two-way center extraordinaire Jordan Staal has yet to play a shift this season, first from an infection of a foot injury from last spring, then from a freak accident in practice that left him with a broken wrist as he was on the verge of a return to action. And offseason free agent capture Mike Comrie has been in a Ziggy Palffylike funk, registering a paltry five assists and zero goals in 16 games around missing time for various undisclosed illnesses and injuries.

That has left Crosby to carry the load with a downright human supporting cast. Without Comrie, who many thought was ordained to play on the wing with Crosby, thus freeing up Malkin to take up the wing alongside a presumably healthy Staal, Crosby has been left centering Pascal Dupuis and the occasionally misfiring Chris Kunitz, both of whom are on pace for career seasons in the 20 to 25 goal range. Support scoring has been limited, with a second line temporarily comprised of Mark Letestu, Tyler Kennedy, and Matt Cooke, which is basically one of three checking lines.

The only other dependable commodities have been in defense. Marc-Andre Fleury, who overcame early-season struggles to go 11-0-1 in his last 12 games on the trot. Kris Letang has also had his breakout season to date, sitting second in the league in plus minus (plus-15) and second in All-Star voting (as a write-in candidate, behind only Sid the Kid) with five goals and 21 assists.

But offensively, it’s more or less been all Crosby. He’s basically saddled up the rest of the squad and put them on his back the last month with a performance that can only be described as Gretzky-an.

He’s even solidified one of the few areas of his game that could have been regarded as a weakness: defense. He’s become a much more responsible defender, even assuming sporadic penalty kill duties as part of the Pens’ third forward pairing. It helps that he’s paired with two excellent and aggressive forecheckers in Kunitz and Dupuis, which allows him to patrol the neutral zone and utilize his tremendous rink vision to cause mistakes and create opportunities.

He’s also developed into one of the top face-off men in the league, filling the void left by Staal’s absence. Crosby has stepped to the face-off dot with more frequency than anyone in the league, taking and winning more than anyone else, and doing so at a highly-respectable 55.3 percent clip.

It’s hard to fathom that Crosby, in his sixth season as an NHLer as a 23-year-old who technically isn’t even in his prime yet, already has a Stanley Cup, two Eastern Conference Championships, a Hart Trophy, an Art Ross, a Rocket Richard Trophy, and an Olympic Gold Medal in his trophy case. The reality of the enormity of his success makes any description of his greatness wither.

But, perhaps the most telling characteristic of this hot streak is that with his myriad other accomplishments, the latest string of success ranks as noteworthy.

Now that’s elite company.

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