By Daniel Friedman
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It's been a rough go for Sidney Crosby these last couple of weeks.
The Penguins' captain and franchise superstar has been at the epicenter of the NHL universe since his arrival in 2005. Nine years later, he's still the most talked-about player in the league.
But right now it's for all the wrong reasons.
Sparked by an overreaction to a goal drought, people took to social media and message boards en masse and declared Crosby "invisible." He was even booed at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh during the first round.
All this, of course, despite the fact that he had made several big plays and was getting his chances – not to mention six points in eight games – before finally scoring in his ninth.
But just as he appeared to be firing on all cylinders, his team all but assured passage to the Eastern Conference finals, Crosby vanished from the score sheet. He failed to record a single point in Games 5, 6 and 7.
Even worse, Crosby was channeling his frustration – with both his opponents' supposed antics and his production woes – not towards beating the Rangers, but rather towards making a scene.
Game 6 would prove to be the moment he reached his boiling point. It started during the second period, when Crosby kicked Dan Girardi's skate, completely upending him. After the horn sounded to end the period, he speared Dominic Moore in the groin.
When asked about the incident after the game, Crosby opted to play dumb: "What did you see that I might have (done)?" He was then told it looked like he took a shot at Moore: "When he tied me up at that faceoff? I took a shot or he took a shot?"
If you're down by a goal with the opposition 20 minutes away from forcing Game 7, you cannot jeopardize your team's chances of winning just because you're frustrated, especially when you're the captain and all of your teammates are looking at you to lead them.
Both Crosby and the rest of the Penguins were clearly rattled and it showed for the rest of that game.
The Penguins had jumped out to a 3-1 series lead. They had three chances to close the door but blew each one of those games and lost the series. Henrik Lundqvist may have stolen Game 7, but that doesn't excuse the Penguins' inability to take Game 5 or 6.
The most troubling thing about Crosby's overall performance wasn't the lack of production (though in Game 7, he absolutely needed to be a factor and was anything but). Until now, he'd never averaged less than a point-per-game in the playoffs and I sincerely doubt that will happen again for a long, long time. What's most concerning is his attitude.
If this were an isolated incident, it would be more acceptable. However, attitude is becoming a recurring issue. In fact, Crosby has been involved in controversial on-ice incidents in each of the last three playoff years.
We'll start with April 15, 2012: The Penguins were down 2-0 in their first-round series against their arch-nemesis, the Philadelphia Flyers. In Game 3, they were not faring much better.
Sidney Crosby knocked Jakub Voracek's glove off, then pushed it away as Voracek tried to pick it up.
When asked about the incident, Crosby said the following: "I don't like any guy on their team (Flyers) there. It (Voracek's glove) was near me and he went to pick it up and I pushed it." When asked why he didn't like them, he simply responded: "I don't like them because I don't like any guy on their team."
Crosby also added that he doesn't "have to sit here and explain why I pushed a glove away. They are doing a lot of things out there, too." When told he could've skated away, he said "skated away? Oh, well, I didn't that time."
I've heard more mature parting shots from kids on a playground.
Pittsburgh never seemed to have its composure in that series and were ultimately eliminated, 4-2. An inferior team was able to defeat the Penguins because they let their emotions get in the way.
Moving on ahead to 2013, on the first day of June: The Pens and Bruins opened their conference finals series and, in Game 1, things weren't going as planned for Crosby and Co.
And so, at the end of the second period, with Boston up 1-0 and the game still within reach, "Sid the Kid" decided to lash out. He gave Tuuka Rask a bit of a nudge, and after Rask said something back, Crosby turned around and crosschecked him. After that exchange, Crosby decided he hadn't quite made his point yet and started up with Zdeno Chara.
I think Bruins' head coach Claude Julien said it perfectly, when describing Crosby's actions: "This is playoff hockey and those things are going to happen. You don't whine or complain about it. You just deal with it. What we had to deal with was winning a hockey game and that's all that mattered."
Crosby's take couldn't have been more inaccurate.
"That's just kind of the result of the way the game escalated," he said.
What Crosby failed to see or accept was that things might have escalated, but he was the one who wound up going berserk. He's responsible for his own actions and for the end result.
And as for the end result of that series, the Bruins swept Pittsburgh and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals.
Crosby's actions are a significant reason why his Penguins haven't achieved much as far as recent playoff success is concerned. He is, by all accounts, the most talented hockey player in the galaxy and that hasn't changed. His leadership qualities, on the other hand, are coming into question and there's plenty of justification for that.
Right now, No. 87 is not the same player who captained the Pens to the Cup finals in 2008 and the NHL championship in 2009. He isn't even the same player who scored the "Golden Goal" for Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics.
Right now, Crosby is a sorry excuse for a leader and is in need of a major attitude change. Maybe it's due to his perceived sense of entitlement; maybe it is because he's genuinely frustrated.
But even in that case, if you don't like what your opponents are doing, beat them on the damn scoreboard.
That's what sets great leaders apart. When Jonathan Toews is ticked off, he's unstoppable. He'll make every play he needs to in order to make sure his team wins.
Yes, he's always whined, but Crosby at least had this killer instinct at one point. He needs to find it again. Until he does, and until he figures out a way to keep his emotions in check in crucial situations, he will not be able to lead his team effectively.
Players lose their cool every now and then, but Crosby seems to do that at the worst possible times. Great leaders are able to exercise restraint when the scoreboard matters most. There's a difference between throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of December and doing it in Game 3 when your team is trying to claw away at a 2-0 series deficit.
It's gut-check time for Sidney Crosby. He needs to learn from his mistakes and, for once, channel that towards being the great captain he used to be. When that happens, I'll take the Penguins seriously again.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI
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