Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Memoirs of an Invisible Man

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

When you look back at the recently-completed Eastern Conference Quarterfinal between the Flyers and Penguins, among the dozens of snapshots it's hard to conjure up an image of Sidney Crosby having done anything worthwhile. And that's sad, considering he is the most marketable asset in the league who didn't even make it out of the first round.

But how is it that a player who scored better than a point-per-game (8 pts. in 6 appearances) was rendered pretty much invisible?

How is it that the figurehead of the "new" NHL was overshadowed and pushed into near irrelevance, not by the opposition, but by his own teammates?

I bet Mario Lemieux, Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma would kill to find that out.

"I think these six games were probably Crosby’s six best games out of the last 14. I thought he was very good," Bylsma lied in Sunday's post-game postmortem.

Here are a few simple explanations: Jordan Staal, James Neal and Evgeni Malkin were simply better.

For one, Staal came up with team-bests of six goals and nine points. He was everywhere Crosby might have been expect to be: in open space, knowing when to rush and when to lay off, when to shoot and when to dish, creeping behind the defense, getting his face time in the crease.

So was Neal, who appeared to be following orders as the guy who tried to do the dirt to Philly's top forwards on every shift. He came up with six points, four distinct head-shots, two scores (including what still remains as the "goal of the series" from Game 4), a one-game suspension, and a whole new reputation.

And Malkin, the best player for Pittsburgh. Let's not forget that, while Crosby got to lift the Cup first because he bore the "C," Malkin was the Conn Smythe Winner in 2009. Was the best player as the Pens were upset by the Habs in the second round two years ago. Actually stood in the handshake line at the end where Crosby opted out. Bore the burden of being the Lone Star with Crosby out for last year's collapse against Tampa Bay.

The 25-year-old Russian came up with three goals and eight points, and was the only man on the opposing bench who seemed most determined not to let Game 6 slip away after two straight wins. He was held off the scoreboard twice, but was the man behind the men in the middle contests, all but one of his points coming in Games 2, 3 and 4. He was also simply too fast, too involved to let anyone lay a good check his way. He also clearly understood that a game is not won after putting in a strong effort over a mere opening 20 minutes.

He continues to make his case to outsiders that his overall worth has been more of a catalyst to Pittsburgh's rebirth than Crosby.

Here's another: he's still not feeling right in the wake of concussion problems that may have gotten worse as the series progressed.

Three collisions come to mind -- the accidental meeting of Malkin and Crosby and Crosby's off-balance collision with the goal post in Friday's 3-2 home win in Game 5, and Claude Giroux's purposeful, devastating launch just seconds into Game 6 which seemed to leave him dumbstruck.

We know that, aside from the two brutal hits sustained in January of 2011 which led to Crosby's lengthy post-concussion absence, there was just one recurrence -- a rather innocuous collision with teammate Chris Kunitz in early December where a head-shot was not involved -- which tipped the scales of the young star's health.

So it's not a stretch to assume that either one of those three incidents, or all of them combined had an adverse effect going forward. This, despite #87's assertion earlier today that nothing out of the ordinary came from that unexpected contact.

It was noted on Sunday evening that Crosby "didn't seem to be himself" for the remainder of the clincher. When pressed on this issue, Bylsma chose to sidestep the issue entirely:

“We were on the short end of the scoreboard and for a lot of that game we were behind significantly. The Flyers weren’t concerned with giving up to much. Whether it was just one player I think the Flyers played their best defensive game of the series today in addition to getting out to the first goal and the power play goal. They were the best at the other side of the puck today.”

And while it's true that the Flyers finally woke up defensively and put forth a playoff-like effort on the back end in the final game of this series, Crosby still seemed to be the most Casper-like of all the Penguins who didn't kick it into gear.

Even when you strip away all the bravado and the baiting that came from the chippiness of the first two contests, there wasn't much substance left in Crosby's overall game.

That's why this seems especially troubling. Stripped of any context, the next quote may seem especially damning, complacent and lacking the fire expected of a captain whose team was bounced in the first round despite being a Cup favorite:

"Well, I don't think anybody does (like to lose), but, you know that's hockey sometimes. You don't always get to achieve the stuff you want to and there's a lot of other teams that want the same thing. It's not a good feeling, but that being said, we've got to find some way to learn from this and be better for it."

A man who thinks he has an unlimited number of shots left in his career to get to the final round? Someone melancholy in the immediate bleakness of defeat? Someone trying to convey that losing is a blessing in disguise? Someone not in his right mind?

Only one person has the answer, and none of us should envy the path he has to take to get it all straight. Whatever Crosby decides to do from this point forward regarding his play, health and growth in leadership, it's in his best interest to be firm, decisive and most of all, visible.

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