Crosby: Just add ice ...

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- Surprisingly few people came to the hockey game last night for a glimpse at the future.

About 4,500, just over half the capacity of the Wachovia Arena, turned up for the pre-season game to watch the Boston Bruins beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4 in overtime.

The people of Wilkes-Barre Pa., and nearby Scranton, devotedly support their American Hockey League team. They once bought out 144 consecutive games.

But the game is lost on them. And so, folks here will have to settle for some day lying about seeing Sidney Crosby's first game.

It was a night that left Crosby, and everyone else, satisfied.

"It was pretty much what I anticipated," Crosby said. "The guys were fast and strong. I'm going to just try and build off it."

His first night with an NHL-issued 87 on his back will soon be proven typical.

He had a dominating first period and drew three successive penalties, earned an assist and hit the post with a shot. He was quiet in the second, but in the third he shook off 215-pound Boston defenceman Mark Stuart like he was lint on his collar to deliver yet another scoring chance.

He streaked in for another partial breakaway two shifts later. He had five of the Penguins' 31 shots on goal and could have had twice as many had he not repeatedly tried to pass. He finally was stopped on a penalty shot in the shootout.

Crosby's first NHL moments were a kaleidoscope of the skills he someday will use to dominate the NHL: Incredible acceleration, strength in the corners, superb hand skills, devastating quickness.

On the negative side, he occasionally overhandled the puck. He also was unimpressive in the faceoff circle and , midway through the evening, was replaced with linemate Mark Recchi to take draws.

But Crosby is polished in a way no 18-year-old could dream of. He attacks the net ferociously and was roughed up by Bruins defenders all night. And he is one of the few skill players of any age to disdain the perimeter.

"I have to go in there and battle," Crosby said. "Those guys are big and strong, but I have to compete out there. I'm not going to win every battle, but I have to try."

Recchi was impressed.

"He darts," the veteran said. "He is terrific at finding a hole. He's a great playmaker and he's very strong on his skates. He's very hard to knock off the puck."

Now, after one whole exhibition game, the picture becomes clearer.

There will be no acclimatizing period for Sidney Crosby in the NHL, unless you count the time most of the league's players will spend trying to catch up to him.

"It's amazing what he can do at 18 years old, just turned 18," said Penguins owner/captain Mario Lemieux. "He was one of the best players out there skating-wise, playing with the puck. Give him a couple of years, he'll be scary, especially with these rules."

And it unfolds from there. If Crosby is this far ahead of the curve now, what about a year from now? Or two, or three? Suddenly Wayne Gretzky's prediction that Crosby will break his scoring records doesn't sound so absurd.

"We've just got to be careful of the expectation," Recchi said. "I can see where it can go and it's not hard, but at the same time it's our job to protect him from that."

Lemieux invoked owner's privilege when asked about the player Crosby bears the strongest resemblance to.

"He reminds me of (Peter) Forsberg, the way he can go into the corner and come out with the puck and play physical at times," he said.

Just like Peter Forsberg. That's what the people who witnessed Sidney Crosby's first game will say.

All 50,000 of them.


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