- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PITTSBURGH -- A year ago, the hockey world observed Sidney Crosby as though he were a brand new organism unearthed in the excavation of some long-forgotten hockey rink.
As the teenage scoring sensation and anointed savior of the game prepared for his first playoff series against Ottawa, we poked and prodded and mostly wondered. How would the league's scoring champ adjust to life in the pressure cooker of the postseason? What could he accomplish? How would he lead his team? Where would he lead his team?
In the end, Crosby acquitted himself well in a five-game series loss to eventual Eastern Conference champion Ottawa. Crosby had five points in five games and averaged 21:40 minutes a night. He had one game winner and an even rating at the end of a series that seemed to reinforce the old maxim that you've got to fall before you can get up.
Fast-forward to this spring, and many things have changed for both Crosby and the Penguins. The dynamics are different for Crosby, who missed 29 games, mostly because of a high ankle sprain, and the team, which begins the playoffs as the Atlantic Division champion and the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
Here's a look at how things are different and what to expect from Sid The Kid the second time around:
Noting the obvious
Not that we're the masters of the obvious or anything, but Crosby is a year older this spring. Simply having a third NHL season under his belt, plus having played in the playoffs once, should eliminate whatever "Gee, so these are the playoffs" issues that might have been present a year ago.
Even Crosby acknowledged the stark difference between the regular season and playoffs.
"First 10 minutes, Game 1. It felt like they had eight guys out there," Crosby said Tuesday. "It was just one of those things where we were just watching, trying to feel it out, and they weren't. They were taking the play to us. As the series went on, we got better."
The bottom line is, experience does matter, especially in the playoffs. Wayne Gretzky's first NHL playoff appearance with Edmonton produced three points in three games (this was back in the days of the elimination round). The next season, the Oilers advanced beyond the first round and Gretzky had 21 points in nine games. Crosby's landlord Mario Lemieux played for five seasons in the NHL before making the playoffs, then missed a year before posting 44 points (second-best all time) in his second playoff appearance as the Penguins won their first of back-to-back Cups.
Former New York Rangers GM and current scout and analyst Neil Smith said, like Gretzky and Lemieux, Crosby should continue to get better in the playoffs given his experiences.
"It's mostly the mental side of the game," Smith said. "It's a lot different than the regular season. A player needs to understand that it's a totally different mental game. You've got to learn how to handle certain situations mentally, being down in a series, facing elimination."
Crosby, not surprisingly given his innate ability to understand the game, appears on task with Round 2 approaching.
"You can watch as much as you want, but being in that atmosphere, being in that environment, knowing how to react and things like that, whether you are at home or on the road, just having that sense of 'I've been through this before,'" Crosby said. "It's very emotional when you're in the playoffs, so the more you're prepared for what can happen, the better you are."
Is the ankle half full or half empty?
There are two trains of thought regarding how or if Crosby's ankle injury may affect his performance in the playoffs.
1. It's sometimes said it's better to break a bone than to have a severe sprain, whether it's the high-ankle variety, which Crosby suffered back on Jan. 18, or other body parts. You just never know how long it's going to take to be back to 100 percent. Crosby came back on March 4, played three games and then took off until March 27 to build up strength in the ankle. He also sat out the regular-season finale against Philly, although some say that may have been more tactical than physical.
If Crosby can't go every night in the playoffs or can't go at 100 percent, it not only hurts the team, but also Crosby's own rhythm. Analyst Pierre McGuire, for one, thinks it's a moot point. He has noted in recent games how Crosby has driven the net, how he has veered into high-traffic areas and taken a pounding, especially against Philadelphia, without showing any signs of hesitancy or that he doesn't trust the ankle to hold up.
2. Hey, it's a long season. No one wants to be out with an injury, but if the ankle is fully healed, Crosby should hit the postseason without any sense of fatigue and with a reservoir of energy.
"I think he comes in more invigorated and refreshed," McGuire said.
As for Crosby, he doesn't seem worried about the ankle's affecting his game.
"I'm fine," Crosby said. "I think there's a lot of speculation with my ankle because they sat me out on Sunday. But that's really not the case. It was more of just getting a rest and just making sure that I'm ready for the playoffs. But the ankle is giving me no problems whatsoever."
While it's true "expectation" is Crosby's middle name, playoff expectations are a different beast entirely than, say, the expectations of saving the NHL, selling all kinds of products and cleaning up after himself at Lemieux's house. And make no mistake, the expectations surrounding Crosby and this team are markedly different this time around.
Some of this dynamic was evident at the start of the season, when everyone expected the Penguins to run away with the Eastern Conference. They started sluggishly. But there is a much smaller window for "slow starts" in the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see whether Crosby tries to push too much or simply hits the ground running and the rest of the talented Penguins follow.
When he went down with his ankle injury he was again one of the top two or three players in the league -- and he still finished the season with 72 points in 53 games. If he can find that level of play early in the playoffs, things should be just fine.
The fact the team did not fold when Crosby was out and sometimes linemate Evgeni Malkin tore up the league and finished second in league scoring should also, at least subliminally, tell Crosby he does not have to do everything for the Pens to succeed.
With all due respect to Colby Armstrong and Mark Recchi (and even Malkin), the Penguins went out and bought themselves (OK, rented) a shiny new winger for Crosby in Marian Hossa. That should make a significant difference in how Crosby plays during these playoffs.
Sometimes, a player tries to do it all himself because there aren't enough people around him to help. The acquisition of the talented winger from Atlanta at the trade deadline cost the Pens Armstrong, Crosby's best buddy and road roommate, Erik Christensen, a No. 1 pick and prospect Angelo Esposito. The dilemma from the Pens' standpoint has been that injuries to both Crosby and Hossa have kept the two from spending a lot of time playing together. The challenge, then, will be in finding chemistry on the fly. But that's the nice thing about talent -- it allows you to do those kinds of things.
"It's certainly going to be hard to shut them all down," Smith said. "And Crosby wants to win, whether he scores or not."
McGuire said he thinks Crosby has grown dramatically in his ability to recognize and compete against matchups provided by opposing teams. This sometimes involves distributing the puck more quickly and knowing when to use his skills to drive the net.
This season, with Hossa's arrival and Malkin's stepping out from Crosby's significant shadow, that shouldn't be an issue.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.