I recall vividly the first time I saw Sidney Crosby play in person.
It was during the 2004-05 season in Rimouski and I had travelled to the small Quebec town to write a cover story for The Hockey News. Crosby, who was 17 at the time, was all the rage - the best player on the Oceanic, in the QMJHL and the runaway leading contender to be picked first overall in the NHL entry draft.
What struck me most about Sid The Kid was his eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth attitude. Not the biggest player on the ice at a tad under six-feet tall and about 190 pounds, Crosby nevertheless gave back as hard as he got. His talent level was off the scale. And when it came to being physically abused, Crosby wouldn't put up with any guff, either.
Fast forward to the 2013-14 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Crosby once again has been the target of abuse, first by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round and now by the New York Rangers. Typically, he isn't putting up with any of the nonsense.
The only problem is, Crosby has been thrown off his game. One goal and nine points in 12 games might be decent numbers for many NHLers. But not for Crosby. His production is off and his eye has been taken off the prize. Rather than being the leader the Pittsburgh Penguins have grown accustomed to seeing, he has become a problem for a team now facing a Game 7 after having held a 3-1 series lead.
It certainly isn't all Crosby's fault. But his lack of composure has not helped Pittsburgh's cause. It can be argued that as his team's best player, Crosby should not be fighting his own battles at this stage of the season. He should be receiving the same type of protection afforded Wayne Gretzky in his prime.
The Penguins have done a lousy job protecting their leader. And now out of sheer frustration, Crosby is off his game. That was obvious when he speared Dominic Moore in the groin after a whistle and when he cross-checked Brian Boyle at the conclusion of Sunday's 3-1 loss to the Rangers.
On the one hand, it is admirable that Crosby stands up for himself. However, when it becomes a distraction and interferes with his team's ability to win, it must stop.
Crosby's focus needs to be on producing goals for the Penguins in Game 7 on Tuesday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET). Should Pittsburgh advance to play either Boston or Montreal in the Eastern Conference final, his focus must continue to be on playing the game. You absolutely know he will be targeted again by both the Bruins and Canadiens and how he handles the attention could decide if the Penguins are able to advance to the Stanley Cup final or not.
For Crosby to not respond to being targeted is going to take a heck of a lot of willpower. It goes against the grain for a player who is used to being bothered, to being poked. Opposing players know he can be goaded into reacting and so they chip away at him until he blows a gasket.
Early in the playoffs, when Crosby was underperforming, there was speculation he was playing hurt. It's one thing to be slumping on the scoreboard. But Crosby did not look like he had his usual spark. In Game 2 against New York, though, he suddenly picked it up. Although he didn't register a point, he played with more passion, more gusto, producing six shots on goal.
In Game 3, he scored his only goal of the playoffs thus far and continued to display the typical Crosby jump and passion we have grown accustomed to seeing. However, his play has levelled off again and there is too much emphasis on retaliating to the close checking he is receiving.
The more Crosby fights back, the more the Rangers will attack him. And why not? His focus is not on helping his team win, it is on getting even.
Crosby has amazing post-season numbers in his career - 41 goals and 114 points in 94 games. It is interesting, though, when his team needs him most, in recent years, he has been silent. Last season, when the Penguins were swept in four games by the Bruins in the Eastern final, Crosby was held pointless. In six games against the Rangers in this year's playoffs, he has a goal and three points.
It's not often you can say this about Sidney Crosby, but that just is not good enough.
Follow Mike Brophy on Twitter @HockeyBroph
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