Pens mightier for Sid

Sidney Crosby (87) of Pittsburgh Penguins warms up prior to taking on the Ottawa Senators in...

Sidney Crosby (87) of Pittsburgh Penguins warms up prior to taking on the Ottawa Senators in pre-season NHL action at the Corel Centre in Ottawa on Sept 29, 2005. (SUN/Sean Kilpatrick)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:34 AM ET

MT. LEBANON, Pa. -- Somehow, in the past five or six weeks, Sidney Crosby supposedly turned into Sid Vicious.

As the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Penguins plummeted, the golden boy of the re-launched National Hockey League has been slagged in various major hockey circles as a diver, a whiner, too ambitious, insensitive to fired coach Ed Olczyk and too young to be named alternate captain by new bench boss Michel Therrien.

RESPOND ON ICE

Tonight, in his first game against the Maple Leafs, on Hockey Night In Canada and with leading critic Don Cherry on hand, Crosby hopes to respond on the ice. He took the high road yesterday after the Pens wrapped up practice at a suburban rink.

"They're allowed to have opinions and I respect that," the 18-year-old said. "The opinions I care about most are the guys sitting next to me in here, earning each other's respect."

Within minutes of becoming a Penguin last summer, Crosby was dubbed the saviour of the team, successor to Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, the key to a new arena and the herald of skill and class returning to the unlocked NHL. But while he's exceptional on skates, no one can walk on water, even in a city with three rivers.

"There has been a backlash against Sidney and frankly, it's amazing to us," said Tom McMillan, Penguins vice-president of communications. "He's our leading scorer, he's great in the community and he's there for the media after tough losses. This is not the season we've hoped for, but he has done everything asked of him. Both Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky have said they never faced the kind of pressures he has to deal with at age 18. This can be a cynical sports town and if Sidney wasn't doing his share, believe me, you'd have heard the stories from here, first."

Open season on Sid the Kid began Nov. 16 when he had two or three teeth broken by Philadelphia Flyers' Derian Hatcher. No penalty was called, except on Crosby when he came out of the medical room and was roughed up by Hatcher again and yapped to the referee.

With his needle now pushed firmly into the red, Crosby took control of the game and won it in overtime.

But Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock chirped about him diving and Peter Forsberg chided him for not being rugged enough to take the pounding he can expect all his career.

Whether the Flyers were just indulging in mind games or not, others began chiming in. Buffalo Sabres announcers called him a crybaby and Cherry groused that he wielded too much influence, though Grapes' feud with the Crosby camp goes back to junior for Crosby's alleged hot dogging and snubbing Cherry's junior prospects game.

When Olczyk was canned, Leafs commentator Bill Watters further questioned how much power Lemieux had designated to his young house tenant.

But Crosby's feeling that a change behind the bench was due mirrored those of several older teammates on a last-place team. However, their quotes on the subject did not carry quite the same impact.

To the casual TV viewer, Crosby's complaints to the officials do seem too frequent and the team is said to be concerned. If so, getting an 'A', which many predict will become a 'C' by next season, is a risk.

"It's a bit more responsibility on my shoulders and hopefully, that can make me a better player," Crosby said. "An 'A' doesn't mean you have to be vocal. First off, you lead by example. I'm young, I have a lot of guys I can learn from in this room."

NOT SHY

Crosby might be being kind there, as it has been the disappointing play of some high-priced veterans that put the Pens in their current hole in the standings. Rather than Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Mark Recchi and Jocelyn Thibault guiding Crosby, he has often been trying to lift them. Thus Therrien wasn't shy about him getting a letter on his sweater.

"One thing we know, eventually this will be Sidney's team," Therrien said. "We don't ask him to lead the team, (the A's) deserved, because he's one of our best players.

"He's so mature, where most of the kids at his age just want to follow the group. I want him to learn, surrounded by people who've won the Stanley Cup. I want him to be involved in meetings."

Crosby is no longer working with Lemieux as an on-ice safety net, as the owner is sidelined a couple of weeks with an irregular heart beat. But Therrien has switched Crosby back to a familiar role at centre after he played most of the year on both wings. He's also getting his first NHL penalty killing shifts.

Attendance is still on the upswing at Mellon Arena, 35% higher than last year with six sellouts and no crowd lower than 14,009. When Crosby scored twice a minute apart in an eventual 5-4 loss to the Flyers on Friday, the rink was the loudest anyone could remember all season.

"(Success) is just around the corner," Crosby said. "We just need a few breaks."


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