By WILL GRAVES, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The fear is gone. The doubt too for that matter. Ditto the hesitation.
A year into his comeback from the concussion-like symptoms that nearly derailed Sidney Crosby's career, the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar is back atop the NHL scoring race thanks to his unparalleled mix of artistry, speed and grit.
It wasn't the avalanche of points — 50 and counting heading into Friday's game against the New York Islanders — that let Crosby's teammates know their captain was back at the top of his considerable powers. No, the proof lay in the tight places around the net where Crosby makes his living better than anyone else.
"To play down low in the defensive zone against him is a nightmare," Penguins forward Craig Adams said. "It's a long way back, but I can't imagine a guy playing better than he is right now. You can't get the puck from him."
Perhaps because Crosby doesn't have to worry about getting knocked around so much anymore. Don't get him wrong, the game has never been faster. The players have never been bigger and he's never drawn more attention.
Yet thanks to a series of rule changes made by the league and a shift in attitude by the guys wearing the sweaters, players say the NHL is as safe now as it's perhaps ever been.
"I can only speak to the games we played in, there's been a difference," Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I think guys are a little bit more conscious, a little more respectful."
In the 2-plus years since Crosby sustained a concussion following a blindside hit from Washington's David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic, the league has outlawed shots to the head entirely and given senior vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan great leeway in handing out punishment for dangerous plays.
Though Crosby says it's still too early to tell whether the steps taken by the league have made any impact on the number of concussions sustained by players, he does see evidence of guys playing more under control.
"I know it's changed from my first couple years, that's for sure," Crosby said. "The game is much tighter."
Crosby pointed to the average number of penalties as evidence that sticks, elbows, etc., aren't flying quite as much as they used to. Teams are averaging 3.6 power-play opportunities a game this season, down from 5.8 per game during Crosby's rookie year in 2005-06.
Part of the decline can be attributed to the decreasing amount of open ice. After offenses flourished following the 2004-05 lockout, the pendulum has swung back to more conservative, defensive-minded schemes. The result is more clutching and grabbing, sure, but also a decision by players to avoid the kind of unnecessary penalties that can tilt games.
It doesn't always lead to thrilling hockey, but it can lead to smarter, safer play.
"Obviously everyone needs to protect their heads and do the right thing in that mindset," Nashville forward David Legwand said. "But we also want to win hockey games and play the right way."
The definition of what "right way" is, however, remains entirely up for interpretation. Where some players see progress, New York Rangers coach John Tortorella sees a problem. Tortorella believes the game has become almost too sanitized, particularly the closer to the goal the puck gets.
"Underneath the hashmarks, I think you need to let us play a little bit more," he said. "And I kind of miss that part of it. I know it's not going to come back to that. But I thought that was a big part of hockey back in those years, and we certainly can't do those type of things now."
Tortorella isn't embracing brutality as much as he is vocalizing what is, in some ways, an identity crisis for many contact sports. Hockey is trying to preserve the spirit of the game while also protecting the health of its players.
Getting hard data on concussions is difficult because many teams remain vague about the nature of an injury, often never getting more specific than "upper body" and "lower body." Even the Penguins — one of the few progressive franchises in the league when it comes to discussing such matters — grew reticent when reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin left a game against Florida last month after sliding into the end boards.