Having battled for the unofficial title of the NHL's top player the past five seasons with Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby has taken an early claim for that honor this season. With Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos entering the discussion in his third year, having scored 20 goals in his first 20 games, Crosby has stepped it up and is on pace for the best season of his career.
As highly valuable Penguin center Jordan Staal has missed the first two months of the season with two consecutive injuries and Evgeny Malkin is struggling with the worst numbers of his young career, Crosby has kicked in another gear altogether and is nearly single-handedly leading his team to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Crosby has exploded to 23 goals and 46 points in his first 28 games. That's six points ahead of Stamkos for the league lead and a ridiculous 20 points more than next-best scorer Kris Letang, to lead the Penguins. He is easily on pace for career bests in goals (67) and points (134) if he keeps up this pace.
It's likely that when Jordan Staal finally returns to action, some of the pressure (and perhaps minutes) will be off Crosby, but there seems to be no reason to assume he will slow down his torrid scoring pace.
Not only are his personal statistics showing he is easily the number one forward in the league, you only need to look at where the Penguins are as a team to see Crosby's worth. Pittsburgh is tied with Washington and Philadelphia for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, in spite of rather mediocre, or at least inconsistent goaltending from the Fleury-Johnson tandem to date.
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No other player on the Penguins has even reached double-digit goals so far, and the top winger on the squad, Chris Kunitz has 31 points less than Crosby at this point of the season.
The Penguin captain's resolve and determination showed in this week's 3-2 win over the surging Atlanta Thrashers when Crosby scored all three of Pittsburgh's goals to bring Atlanta's five-game winning streak to an end.
He is currently on a 15-game point streak, with 17(!) goals and 14 assists in that span. Correspondingly, the Penguins haven't lost in regulation in their last 12 games, going 11-0-1 in that span.
You only need to look at who Crosby is playing with to see his contribution to the Penguins. Recently he has been skating on a line with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Compare that with Stamkos who has the benefit of skating alongside one of the premier playmakers in the game today in Martin St. Louis, creating a double-threat for opponents to watch.
Meanwhile Kunitz has averaged about 50 points a year in his career, while Dupuis took advantage of playing with Crosby last year to score 38 points, the second-best tally of his career since a career-high 48-point performance in 2003.
He is on a similar pace this year, playing at the upper limits of his potential, having been previously used mainly as a third-line energy player. Behind those two, the highest-scoring winger on the team is troublemaker Matt Cooke, who has four goals and 11 points.
As those line combinations show, the Penguins have a decided deficit of qualified scoring wingers, particularly on the right side. Crosby hasn't let that slow him down though, or anything else for that matter. He is taking on each team's top defensive pairing each night, both creating opportunities and taking advantage of them at an impressive pace.
This writer has never been a huge personal admirer of Crosby or his personality, but his talent has never been debatable. He has throughout his career been unquestionably a top-three player in the NHL.
This year, the Stanley Cup and Olympic gold medal winner has again shown his character as a winner and is clearly not willing to let any setbacks, whether it's injuries to teammates or struggling goaltenders stop him from making sure the Penguins have a chance to win every night.
And more often than not so far, when they have had that chance, Crosby has made sure they take it. And that is why Sidney Crosby is the best player in the National Hockey League right now.