Once again, the Pittsburgh Penguins are enjoying a successful, drama-free start to the 2014-15 NHL season. A month in, they’re 10-3-1, atop the Metropolitan and third in the Conference in points. All’s well in the Steel City – and with hockey’s biggest star, Sidney Crosby.
Given the Pens’ lack of chaos, you could forgive some for overlooking “Sid the Kid” – who’s 27 now – until he puts up five assists in less than two periods of play against Buffalo. And then you realize you he’s once again leading the NHL in points, and on pace for the first 130-point season since 1996, when two guys named Lemieux and Jagr did it on the same Penguins team. He’s still the best hockey player on earth.
Before Tuesday night’s game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden – which didn’t go too well for Crosby and Co. – “the Kid” spoke to us about new Pittsburgh head coach Mike Johnston, the NHL’s mission to cut down on concussions and his continued experiments with facial hair.
I see you’re trying out the mustache again…
Yeah, yeah. It’s come a long way [laughs], which is kinda funny to say, but a ton of guys are doing it, so yeah, it’s fun.
How has the start of this season been different from previous ones?
Just a lot of new things, you know? Coaching staff, a lot of new faces on the teams, systems as far as everything on the ice, so you kind of have to adapt to a new way of playing a bit. It’s been a lot of change, but with that, you kind of force yourself to learn a little bit faster and focus a little bit more, so it’s been good.
What has Mike Johnston brought to the team?
He’s talked about our defense joining the rush a lot. When you look at that – the kind of presence they’ve had in rushes and being able to join in the plays to create odd-man rushes – it’s pretty noticeable, and being able to put a lot of teams back on their heels with the speed we have. Our defensive guys are able to make plays, and they’ve kind of adjusted to doing that.
Let’s talk about the game you had the other night in Buffalo – when you’re at five assists and the score’s not close, do you start thinking of ways to challenge yourself? Like “How many can I put up?”
When you get up to that point, you definitely want to see what you can get to, because it’s not something that happens a lot. When you’re talking about [a] two-or-three [goal lead], it’s different. Depending on the score, guys get a different role – maybe guys get an opportunity on the power play that they might not have had – you balance out the lines and things like that. But in that situation, yeah, I think you get a little more hungry, you don’t always get opportunities like that.
When you’re able to get a good start, it definitely helps. When you’re able to go out there, first shift, and your legs feel strong and you’re making plays and everyone seems like they’re sharp, I think you kinda get the sense that if you execute well you can have some chances. Fortunately, we were able to get a couple [goals] early and feel good about it.
It’s been three years since you suffered your first concussion; are you still noticing small improvements in your health?
I haven’t thought about it for a long time. Unfortunately, when you’re going through that, you’re always trying to wait and see the improvement or when things finally get better. Going through that for such a long period of time, I think it’s nice just to not think about it, that’s been the case for a long time now.
How do you feel about the league’s efforts to protect players and combat head-shots?
I think it’s come a long way. It’s a physical game, and you’re not going to be able to take out every single hit. It’s part of the game, and that’s what we love about it. You love that ability to compete and be physical. But I think that they’ve really paid attention to it, and I think there’s definitely a level that everyone’s familiar with now. They understand where it needs to be. I think you’ve even see the amount of those [hits] go down in the last little while, which is a good thing. Guys will figure it out, the game’s still really physical, you see those big hits still, and guys are hopefully able to play longer. I think it’s been good.
What advice would you give to prospects like Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, who are dealing with the same kind of hype you did?
Just enjoy it. I look back at junior hockey and think about all the great memories I have, all the friends I made. It went by quickly. In my case, it was two years; this is [McDavid’s] third year. It’s easy to kind of think about going pro, and people are talking about you every day, but just enjoy being an 18-year-old kid and your friends and all the things that come along with that. That goes by quick. I feel like yesterday I was in his position, and now this is my 10th year.
What do you think about NHL players returning to the Olympics in 2018?
I’ve had two great experiences, so it’s hard to think that we wouldn’t. I think it’s been great for hockey. But obviously, with trying to make things work here, there’s a lot of stuff they have to consider, but I think everyone who watches enjoys it and knows how good it is for hockey. I’m sure if they can find a way to make it work, we’ll be there. It’s gone really well.
Would you rather win a third gold medal or a second Stanley Cup?
The Olympics are every four years, so maybe you only start to think about them when they get closer. The Stanley Cup? Every summer, every day when you’re training that’s the goal, that’s what you’re thinking about. There’s no cap on it, you wanna win it every year just like everybody else. Obviously, we had the opportunity to do that in ’09, and it would be nice to do it again some time soon.