Lemieux praises 'incredible' Crosby

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:07 AM ET

PITTSBURGH — There are no more tickets to sell for the weather-permitting Winter Classic and no new arena deals to be negotiated.

Sidney Crosby is no longer Mario Lemieux’s tenant either, although the Penguins owner certainly still has a vested interest.

With hype far thicker than the dodgy outdoor ice here at Heinz Field, the superlatives to describe the current Pens captain had all but run out.

Until Friday afternoon that is. Until the man who used to define the franchise offered his not exactly unbiased but incredibly glowing opinion of Captain Crosby.

Looking relaxed and fit after a morning skate in the Winter Classic alumni game, Lemieux met the media for almost 10 minutes. Understand with the notoriously private Lemieux, this qualifies as a Barbara Walters prime-time special.

And Super Mario sounded more like a proud papa than team owner in his analysis of the NHL’s leading scorer and the player who did the most to save his team from bankruptcy.

“He’s an incredible player and incredible person,” Lemieux said in a room just outside the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room that is on loan to the Penguins this weekend.

“What he did with the 25 game (points streak that just ended) is hard to do in this day and age. It’s not the same as it was 20 years ago. There are good goalies, good defencemen who can skate and defensive schemes are very good compared to 20 years ago.

“His work ethic is the best in the world. That’s why he is the best in the world.”

The main attraction of this most hyped Winter Classic yet has been the Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin angle.

It started with a photo shoot of the duelling captains on the football field this fall and continued through the HBO doc focussing on both teams and the leadup to the game.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Jan. 1. Crosby has distanced himself from Ovechkin, for this season anyway. With 50 points in his last 25 games, Crosby is now dead even with Ovechkin at 571 career points. His 32 goals and 33 assists in 39 games have him on easily the best pace of his career as Sid the Kid is all man now.

Crosby has taken 25 less games to reach that total, has a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold medal and has demonstrated himself to be a much more versatile player.

Both Ovechkin and Crosby are comfortable enough with the comparisons that have escalated over the past few seasons as the Pens and Caps have emerged as the most dynamic teams in the Eastern Conference.

When apprised of Lemieux’s analysis of Crosby’s place in the game on Friday, Ovie just shrugged his shoulders and suggested the mantle is more musical chairs than a mantle held by one.

“(Lemieux) can say what he wants,” Ovechkin said. “I think Sid and Stamkos are at the top right now, but the top 10 players (in the league) you can just switch around.”

With allowance for the fact that Lemieux signs the cheques and freely admits he hit the jackpot when the Penguins won the draft lottery to select Crosby, Super Mario wasn’t done with the superlatives.

“He thinks about hockey 24 hours a day, even in his sleep, it seems like,” Lemieux said. “He has the ability to do whatever he wants out there.”

Best to ever play the game? Yes, Lemieux was willing to go that far, in so many words, anyway. Lumping himself in with Wayne Gretzky as the dominant player of a different generation, Lemieux essentially said that what No. 99 and No. 66 did in those days wouldn’t fly in today’s more sophisticated NHL.

“(Ovechkin and Crosby) have two different styles from Gretzky and myself,” Lemieux said. “Ovechkin is physical and he’s got a great shot. Sid is more about controlling the play and using his strength.

“Gretz was finesse and making plays and buying time. You can’t do that any more with all the back pressure. It’s two different styles and two different eras.

“What (Crosby) is doing now is much more impressive than what I did years ago.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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