PITTSBURGH - Sidney Crosby always has been No. 1.
The No. 1 most-watched youth player in Canada. A No. 1 draft pick. No. 1 in scoring in his second NHL season. The No. 1 player in the league by his fellow players' votes last season.
Crosby's career-long refusal to be anything but the best highlights the most surprising element to the Pittsburgh Penguins' run to the Eastern Conference final that starts Friday night against Philadelphia. Evgeni Malkin, not Crosby, has been their No. 1 player in the post-season, and it's been evident.
"I think Malkin right now (is) the best player out of those three," Flyers defenceman Kimmo Timonen, referring to the conference's Big 3 of Washington's Alex Ovechkin, Malkin and Crosby. "Out of those guys I think Malkin has a little bit of an edge right now."
It's not as if Sid the Kid is stuck in some gosh-awful slump, although he has only two goals - one an empty-netter - as the Penguins have won eight of nine playoff games. His 12 assists lead the playoffs and his 14 points are one off the lead.
Still, Crosby looks uncharacteristically sluggish at times, unable to use his exceptionally strong lower body to fend off defenders. The native of Cole Harbour, N.S., has not been nearly as explosive in his skating or on his quick bursts to the net to snap off hard wrist shots.
Imagine that: the 20-year-old Crosby is having the kind of playoffs very few players will experience, yet is being asked if he's off his game.
"The middle part of the last series I wasn't where I wanted to be, but the last game I was a lot better," Crosby said Wednesday, referring to his two-assist game Sunday as the Penguins eliminated the Rangers by winning 3-2 in overtime. "I think it's just one of those things where you get a couple of games that are tougher and that's just the case in the playoffs."
What is uncertain is how much the high ankle sprain that sidelined Crosby for 28 of 31 games from mid-January on is affecting him.
Crosby insists he's fine, but he said the same thing in the playoffs a year ago, when he masked a broken foot until the Penguins were eliminated.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury also had a high ankle sprain in early December and he occasionally feels twinges in his ankle even now.
"I think Sid's the type of guy that always goes hard and he's in the corners, is always on his feet battling, and I think those are tough things for guys with that ankle," Fleury said. "At the same time, it's good we always have a day off between every game (to rest), so that's big."
Crosby was the NHL's leading scorer with 63 points in 46 games before he was hurt. Since returning, he has 23 points, but only six goals, in 16 games.
A reason for the Penguins to be alarmed with only four victories separating them from a chance to play for the Stanley Cup? Probably not. But a close-to-100 per cent Crosby gives them a much better chance to eliminate a Flyers team that beat them in five of eight regular season games.
With accomplished scorers Malkin (six goals, 14 points), Marian Hossa (five goals, 10 points) and Petr Sykora (four goals, six points) around him, Crosby isn't convinced he must be the top goal-scorer for Pittsburgh to win.
He may be right: Since the start of the 2006-07 season, Malkin has 86 goals in 174 games, counting the playoffs, to Crosby's 65 in 146 games.
"I want to score but it doesn't always work out that way," Crosby said. "I'd say my first responsibility is as a playmaker. As long as I'm doing that and creating things, it's fine."
Hossa, the all-star forward added by Pittsburgh at the February trading deadline, has made up for some of Crosby's missing goal production. What bothers him is he's missed converting some of the chances Crosby created.
"He's setting me up so much, I could have more goals than I have," Hossa said. "But the thing is we're winning and that's important. We would like to maybe score a little more, but hopefully we are saving them for the next series."
What the Flyers must be wondering is what Crosby is saving up for them.
Crosby's own introduction to the Flyers-Penguins rivalry came by way of a well-placed stick to the mouth during his rookie season, courtesy of defenceman Derian Hatcher, that chipped some teeth and required stitches. Crosby's career scoring line reflects his not-warm feelings for Philly since then: 16 goals and 21 assists for 37 points in 20 games.
"Probably at the time more so, that game or maybe the game after," Crosby said of wanting to pay back the Flyers. "A lot of things happen over the course of games and it all gets lost and something else happens and you move on."
Seven other Penguins players have as many or more goals in these playoffs as Crosby, and forward Jordan Staal thinks that depth will be critical against Flyers goalie Martin Biron.
Biron is 8-4 with a 2.72 goals-against average in the playoffs, but has occasionally looked shaky against the Penguins. He has a 11-12-1 record with three ties and an .898 save percentage against them.
"Right now, he is hot, but I think we can find some weak spots on him," Staal said. "He's playing confident and I think the players in front of him are playing well, too, so he's gotten it pretty easy so far. If we're playing the same way we've been playing this whole playoffs, and getting a lot of shots on net, I know we'll find a way to beat him."
Even if it's not Crosby taking those shots.
"If we just keep playing the same way we've been playing, we know we're going to keep getting opportunities and keep winning, ultimately," Staal said.