Crosby fits right in on Opening Night
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In spite of all of the hype, or perhaps because of it, there was a kind of perverse anticipation surrounding Sidney Crosby's first NHL game.
What if he was terrible?
What if The Kid looked child-like?
What if his first NHL game wasn't so much historic as horrific?
It wasn't storybook, either. Not everyone gets to be Mario Lemieux, scoring on his first NHL shot on his first NHL shift. But this debut was something that, over time, may be remembered with great fondness if not reverence. Over time, it might well be remembered as the start, however humble, of something quite special.
In the end, The Kid didn't look out of place at all. The great ones never seem to.
Think about it. The great ones never blend into the woodwork, but instead are a form of raised relief. They're the kinds of players you almost never have to look for during a game or think about at the end of a game. What did they do? Were they even there?
Even on a night when the Penguins turned in a disappointing performance in a 5-1 loss to the surprisingly efficient Devils, Crosby always managed to maintain a profile, a presence.
"It goes quick. Your first game, you try and remember every shift and everything you did," Lemieux said. "I thought he skated well and didn't look out of place at all."
On his first shift, Crosby made a nice play walking out from behind the Devils net, only to be thwarted by Martin Brodeur, the difference-maker on this night with his 36-save performance.
"That would have been nice," Crosby said. "He's patient. Most goalies would have moved. He just stayed in there."
Later, in the third period with the game already decided, Crosby picked up a loose puck near the corner, took a stride and in the same moment, sent a delicate pass to winger Mark Recchi for the Penguins' lone goal. There were a couple of other chances, a couple of deft moves and sweet passes.
• As for Mario's 40th birthday on Wednesday, Crosby acknowledged he hadn't got around to buying a gift yet. "But there may be something in the works," Crosby said mysteriously. As for Lemieux, he said he would cut The Kid some slack. "He's a little busy today, so I'll let it slide," Lemieux said.
• New Jersey Devils staff said they had more than 175 requests for credentials for Wednesday's game, which would compare with the level of interest usually generated by the Eastern Conference finals.
• Someone asked Crosby if the media attention leading up to the game was "surreal." "That's not the way I'm really looking at it," said Crosby, patiently. What is surreal is 100 reporters asking an 18-year-old kid if he's nervous.
• Crosby is rooming with linemate Recchi, 37. Not surprisingly, Recchi gets control of the television remote. "I have no say in that. None whatsoever," Crosby said.
After, still sweaty with a Penguins cap perched on his head, Crosby was typically modest about his contributions, even though U2's Beautiful Day played in the background like the soundtrack to some Hollywood movie.
"I'm playing in the NHL. Obviously, I'm going to be happy. It's a dream come true. But after that, you play to win and that doesn't change no matter where you play," Crosby said. "Obviously, it's my first game, I'm still getting my feet wet, but as it went on, I felt more comfortable and I think I created some things out there."
He said there were times he felt he was looking too much, too pedestrian. But there were other members of the Pittsburgh Penguins who looked far more nervous or rusty, including sniper Ziggy Palffy, who muffed an open-net opportunity early, when the Penguins dominated play with a string of power-play opportunities.
And certainly, there were lots of things Crosby would like to have had unfold differently.
He was minus-2 on the night and won just six of 16 faceoffs while playing 15:50.
"That's not very good," the self-effacing Crosby said of his faceoff acumen, drawing some comforting chuckles from the media. "That's something I have to work on. I'm not going to lie."
By the end of the night, the Devils crowd was chanting "overrated." But this is the same group that yelled out the usual taunts to Rangers fans five or six times Wednesday night, so it just means they have a wry sense of hockey humor as opposed to a Greek chorus foretelling Crosby's future.
Penguins coach Ed Olczyk was understandably understated about the entire evening.
His team was a woeful 1-for-11 on the power play, and they squandered a couple of two-man advantages allowing the Devils to score crucial goals late in the first and second periods.
He agreed with Crosby that perhaps early on, the youngster took an extra moment to make a play, that it took some time to adjust to the increased pace of the regular season. He also agreed that as the game went on, Crosby seemed to find a comfort zone.
"He's a player we're going to count on heavily, not only Friday night in Carolina, but also in the future," Olczyk said.
As disappointing as the outcome was against a division opponent, Olczyk, a former player and broadcaster, has a welcome knack for perspective and he understands that in many ways, this was an important night, a night to remember for fans, the league and for The Kid.
"I think first and foremost, most importantly, is that we're back in business. It's been a long 18 months," Olczyk said of the debut of the 2005-06 season.
As for Crosby, Olczyk pulled him aside before the game and advised him to soak it in, to enjoy the moment as much as possible.
"Not many players get an opportunity," Olczyk. "You think about all the young kids that play hockey in the United States and Canada that dream of playing in their first NHL game or even getting a sniff at it, a lot of guys that end up never making it to the NHL.
"But for Sidney Crosby and all the players that have come before him and after him, he'll never forget this night."
Maybe Beautiful Day wasn't so far off after all.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.