SOCHI, Russia — Ziga Jeglic and Janis Sprukts aren’t Sidney Crosby, yet they’re both outscoring the Team Canada captain in the Olympic hockey tournament.
Through three games, Crosby has no goals and two assists, a level of production that could be cause for concern. But that’s only the case if Crosby’s other contributions on the ice are ignored.
“He’s playing against the best D-pairing and they’re going all out trying to check him,” centre Jonathan Toews said Monday. “Whether he’s scoring every game or not, he’s deflecting a lot of that attention, a lot of that pressure towards himself, and it creates a lot of room and a lot of breathing room and space for other guys to go out and create offence.”
In other words, Canada shouldn’t panic about Crosby.
Coach Mike Babcock, who said in August it was important to get Crosby going but that “he’s just part of the team, too” understands the star centre’s role on this team goes beyond just filling up the score sheet.
“Everyone evaluates Sid on scoring, and I evaluate Sid on winning,” Babcock said Sunday night after beating Finland 2-1 in overtime.
“That’s what we came here for.”
Through three games his team is undefeated going into Wednesday’s quarter-final against Switzerland or Latvia, and Crosby has offered a balanced assessment of his performance. He and his bevy of linemates had more chances against Norway and Austria than against the more-talented Finns, but that was expected as the talent level increased.
“I think you always want more,” Crosby said. “If you asked me that question a month ago, I’d have said, ‘I’d like to create more.’ It’s the same way now. You always want to generate offence, create chances, and obviously put the puck in the net.”
The last time Crosby put the puck in the net at the Olympics, he won Canada the gold medal. But as Toews pointed out, “it doesn’t really matter when you play teams like Norway and Austria.”
Patrice Bergeron could see after just one game as Crosby’s right-winger what he was capable of.
“He does all the little details on the ice right, and he’s so explosive,” Bergeron said. “Obviously he draws lots of attention to him. You can tell they are worried about him and they are playing him tight.”
By the time this tournament is over, Crosby won’t be measured by what he did in two games against Norway and Austria that essentially served as warm-ups for a star-studded group of NHL players.
Beginning in the quarter-finals, he has opportunities to further burnish his legacy.
In the process, though, he has to deal with the challenge of developing chemistry with his linemates, something that also took a while to click in 2010.
Already Babcock has had Chris Kunitz and Jamie Benn on Crosby’s left wing and Jeff Carter, Martin St. Louis and Bergeron on his right.
That’s almost as many as he went through during the entire Vancouver Olympics. Still, Crosby said going through the blender of linemates doesn’t change much of what he does.
“I don’t think I’m out there, thinking about where a guy’s going to be, or second-guessing a play because I haven’t necessarily played with that guy,” he said.
“I don’t know if you necessarily have that much time to think about or dissect how your linemates are going to play,” Crosby added.
Leave that to everyone else, and that could mean 34 million opinions. Debates among Canadian fans over Crosby’s linemates and the how difficult it is to play with him are raging, especially after Babcock dropped Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Kunitz off that line.
That’s not an indictment of Crosby’s play as much as it’s another chapter in the developing storyline that it’s not easy to find chemistry with him, especially in a short tournament like the Olympics.
“I think maybe at this point whoever gets that chance shouldn’t put too much pressure on themselves,” Toews said. “Just go play hockey. When you have the puck, just look for whoever’s open. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get it to Sidney.”
Crosby believes that, because all of these forwards are so good, “you can just read off each other, no matter who you’re playing with.”
But there’s a psychological block that can go into playing with Crosby, considering his undeniable skill. A huge reason why Kunitz made the team was because he has had plenty of time in the NHL to get over any mental hurdles that exist.
Count Bergeron among those still trying to figure it out.
“The challenge is to try to play to your best,” he said. “He’s obviously the best player in the world. It’s about trying to find him when he’s open but also it’s getting open for yourself, not just trying to feed him. He’s a smart enough player to get open and see the right area to go to. I’m trying to do the same thing as well so he has some options.”
Benn and Bergeron were arguably two of Canada’s best forwards in the first two games while skating on the fourth line with John Tavares. In one game against Finland, there wasn’t instant chemistry with Crosby, though that doesn’t mean it cannot develop if Babcock keeps the trio together.
There’s no telling if that will happen, especially given the number of possibilities at his disposal. Whoever draws that spot for the quarter-final has the task of speeding up — physically and mentally.
“He’s a tough guy to keep up with,” right-winger Rick Nash said. “He’s so fast. The way he thinks about the game seems like it’s far beyond everyone else’s process.”
Nash recalled Vancouver, when Babcock kept shuffling through linemates until he found something that works.
Again, that’s the coach’s biggest dilemma moving forward into a one-game-elimination tournament that’s going to put much more of an emphasis on getting the timely goal than a large quantity of them.
In Crosby, Canada has a player with a history of doing just that. The one thing his teammates cannot do is stand around and wait for him to deliver again.
“There’s a lot of guys in our lineup that can do it,” Toews said. “It’s not just one guy to put all that burden on.”