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Penguins have another great 1

Top pick Crosby lives up to billing

PITTSBURGH -- Mario Lemieux, not one given to tossing out superlatives about 18-year-olds, has a one-word description of the player who seems destined to replace him as the Pittsburgh Penguins' superstar-in-residence: Amazing.

Each time Sidney Crosby plays, opposing scouts sit in the press box and compare notes about him, and they can be heard relating the exceptional plays they've seen him make and discussing what is still to come over the next, oh, 15-20 years.

The backhander that froze goalie Jose Theodore to decide the first shootout in the Montreal Canadiens' history. The breakaway to beat Philadelphia in overtime, the same night a Derian Hatcher stick to his mouth gave him four stitches in his lip and several chipped teeth. His goal against Washington in which he split two defenders to score. The spinning, no-look pass from one knee directly onto Ziggy Palffy's stick for a goal against the Capitals.

Pretty good season, huh? Not quite. For Crosby, it's merely the first quarter of his first NHL season, one in which he has drawn comparisons to a teenage Wayne Gretzky, created the kind of first-season stir that no Penguins player since Lemieux has generated and, yes, made his first enemy or two.

Even while Crosby was scoring four goals in three games against Philadelphia, Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said he barely noticed Crosby on the ice. If so, then Hitchcock is about the only person in the NHL who hasn't.

''He's something special," Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig said.

So much for the theory that rookies need an indoctrination period before they are accepted into the league. First, they must get roughed up a few times, shut down by goalies far superior to any they have opposed before, and spend time adjusting to the speed and flow of the NHL game.

Crosby needed about two games to do all of that and, ever since, he has been one of the league's best.

To the Penguins, that's been the one surprise about Crosby: He has been even better than expected.

They knew the points would come from the No. 1 draft pick, but not this many so soon -- 27 points in 22 games, a pace equivalent to Lemieux's 100-point season as a rookie in 1984-85. A pace better than that of 2003-04 NHL scoring champion Martin St. Louis of Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay.

The Penguins knew the passing and playmaking were there, but not like this, with stylish flourishes and game-to-game innovations that have impressed even veteran teammates Mark Recchi, John LeClair, and Palffy. As Palffy said, ''You never know what to expect."

Seen as more of an all-around playmaker than a pure shooter like fellow super rookie Alexander Ovechkin of Washington, Crosby has displayed a nasty backhand and a hard, quick wrist shot while scoring nine goals in 11 games and 11 in 22 games.

Still, Crosby said he is nowhere close to peaking.

''I'm still trying to develop consistency," Crosby said. ''You have to think faster up here. The reaction time is fast. You have to think quick, or else you're not going to make a lot happen."

The league is learning something, too: Crosby doesn't take many nights off. He has at least one point in 17 of 22 games, the kind of scoring consistency that leads to big seasons.

Big expectations, too, and Crosby has handled those as well. He has never seemed overwhelmed by the constant media attention -- it helps that he's been a household name in Canada since he was 13 -- or the pressure to perform.

To Lemieux, Crosby's ability to quickly assimilate all that's swirling around him on the ice and to handle the demands off it -- the interview requests, the autograph seekers -- is remarkable for a teenager.

Crosby has been so busy adjusting to life in the NHL, to playing or practicing nearly every day and spending considerable time on the road, he found time to buy his first vehicle (a silver Range Rover) only recently.

''Going through two years of junior, it taught me a lot about myself, how I can handle it," said Crosby, who leads the Penguins on a two-game road trip to Florida and Tampa Bay this weekend. ''You have to worry about hockey. Handle stuff outside of that when you need to, but just worry about hockey. That's what I learned."

Lemieux is lobbying for Crosby to be on Team Canada in the Olympics, even if it means taking Lemieux's own spot.

''He's been one of the best players in the league, game in and game out," Lemieux said. ''They should take a look at him. It would be a good experience for him to be there."

Crosby and other young players such as Ovechkin, Carolina's Eric Staal, Ottawa's Jason Spezza, and Calgary's Dion Phaneuf clearly are giving the league the new star makeover it has needed for years.

No wonder that, after Crosby and Ovechkin met in the NHL for the first time last week, Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said, ''I don't fear for the future with these two guys. It's something that's real special."

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