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After slow start this season, Crosby playing as well as ever

Rumors of Sidney Crosby’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

It’s really nothing new. It’s happened from time to time the last few years as the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar has morphed into a 10-year veteran who is now 28 years old.

“Always does,” Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Saturday in HarborCenter. “It’s not the first time that a question about not scoring a goal in two or three games has arisen. And talk about where he’s at, where he’s gone, where he’s come from, if he’s playing his best or if he’s not the same.”

Bylsma, of course, knows all about the scrutiny of Crosby from his 5½ seasons of coaching No. 87 in Pittsburgh. When the Penguins hit town Sunday for a nationally televised game in First Niagara Center, Crosby will be on the rebound from one of the slowest starts of his career to someone who is yet again in the NHL’s top 10 in scoring.

Crosby had no points in eight of the first nine games this season and had just nine points in his first 18 games. He had a minus-10 rating by Thanksgiving. Like many of the Pens, he simply wasn’t responding to coach Mike Johnston but started to find his game when Johnston was jettisoned and Mike Sullivan was hired Dec. 12.

Crosby has 44 points in his past 37 games and entered Saturday with 14 in February, one off the NHL lead held by Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf. Crosby did not post a point in a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay, leaving his season totals at 25 goals and 55 points in 56 games.

“Clearly right now, he’s at his best and one of the best in the world,” Bylsma said. “When you looked at Sid playing his best, he’s just extremely focused on playing hockey and really not being bothered by any other situation, just going out there and letting ’er go. When he’s going with speed and has got the creativity going in his game, there’s no question he’s the hardest to handle in the world.”

Although continuing to ply his trade in Pittsburgh, Crosby remains the face of hockey in Canada. There were rumblings about what role he would play in this fall’s World Cup, but even when he was slumping, Hockey Canada leadership said Crosby would be named to the team when the first 16 slots are announced March 2. The way he’s playing now leaves no doubt.

“He’s a polarizing figure – throughout Canada – in the media,” longtime linemate Chris Kunitz told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last week. “When you’re the guy under the bright light forever, people see that as being good and bad. I think that’s why there was so much backlash at the beginning of the year when he struggled – if you want to call it that.”

Crosby’s resurgence included a career-high seven-game goal streak, including a hat trick Feb. 2 against Ottawa. That was part of a run of seven goals and 12 points in four games.

“The biggest thing I’ve found over the year is chances,” Crosby told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this month. “If you’re getting chances, I feel like it’s just a matter of time. If the chances are there, I’m not too worried about the puck going in. I think, for the first time, I experienced that there weren’t many chances. And when that doesn’t happen, then you’ve got to find a way to create that confidence in a different way.”

The Penguins have done that in part with the acquisition of puck-moving defenseman Trevor Daley from Chicago. And after the combination was water and oil in October, Phil Kessel was moved back on Crosby’s line with Kunitz Thursday and the trio had three goals in a win over Detroit.

“I’m not saying confidence is not a part of it, because it is, but I think there’s other ways you can get it,” Crosby said. “If you’re solely looking for confidence in the form of scoring then when you’re not, what are you going to do out there? You’ve still got to be effective. I’ve always felt like I still had an impact even when I wasn’t scoring.”

“You have to be aware of where he is at all times. He’s one of the best players in the world, if not the best,” said Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian. “It’s something where you have to keep him in front of you. He’s got a lot of speed. Defensively, you have to keep a good gap, be physical with him.”

The Penguins have won seven straight games against Buffalo, their longest run in the series since the Sabres entered the NHL in 1970, and have outscored the Blue and Gold, 29-6. Crosby, meanwhile, has feasted on the Sabres in his career. He has had a point in 26 of his 29 meetings with Buffalo – and has 47 points in those games, with 14 goals and 33 assists.

The Sabres fell into an early 2-0 hole during their only previous meeting, Oct. 30 during Bylsma’s return game to Consol Energy Center. In the end, Buffalo suffered a 4-3 loss in a game that saw the Sabres outshoot the Pens, 53-29.

“We’re going to have to play solid defensively right from the start and hopefully catch them on a few instances,” Sabres winger Sam Reinhart said Saturday. “We’re definitely confident no matter who we’re going against. We feel that if we’re at our best we can compete with anybody and win a lot of games.”

The Sabres will again have red-hot Robin Lehner in goal. He’s 2-0-1 with a .980 save percentage and a 0.65 goals-against average over his last three games, stopping 97 of 99 shots. He’s on a career-long shutout streak of 117 minutes, 50 seconds.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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