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Published: Saturday, 5/24/2008

Crosby popular Red Wings face the face of the league in finals

BY ZACH SILKA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

DETROIT - Like most 12-year-old hockey fans, Griffin McCarty's favorite NHL player is Sidney Crosby.

When picking out a jersey from his closet, more often than not it's Crosby's No. 87 Pittsburgh Penguins sweater.

Perfectly normal, except Griffin's dad is Red Wings forward Darren McCarty and Crosby's team will be his nemesis for likely the next two weeks in the Stanley Cup finals.

"He knows he's not going to be able to wear that jersey for a little while," McCarty joked yesterday from the Stanley Cup media day at the Cobo Center. "[But] who doesn't like those guys? They're fun to watch.

"I don't blame him. When I was growing up, my favorite was my Wayne Gretzky jersey."

Not since Gretzky retired from the NHL in 1999 has there been one transcendent superstar in the game of hockey. Most point to Crosby as filling that void, and because of that, the spotlight will shine brightest on him when the finals commence at 8 tonight at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena.

"Well, I think, obviously, Sidney Crosby is the face of the game, of our game in the United States," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "So I mean right off the bat you've got the player that I think most people recognize the name in the United States. He's on center stage."

Penguins general manager Ray Shero echoed Holland's sentiments.

"He's proven it over the last two years he's the face of the league through his play," Shero said, "but I think he's the face of the league through his actions as well.

"I think it's a perfect stage for him. Certainly in the third year of his young career, it's pretty quick, but I know he's ready for it. And I think it's great for the National Hockey League."

Still just 20 years old, Crosby has been handed a label - fairly or unfairly - that he didn't ask for but must deal with every day.

From Gatorade commercials proclaiming him the "hero" of hockey to being the youngest captain in the history of the Stanley Cup finals, Crosby has had to handle an inordinate amount of outside pressure.

"As far as the face of hockey, I don't think I pressure myself to be that," Crosby said. "I think I've always tried to be a good professional and tried to be a good role model. But I don't think I let that hang on myself. I think there's a lot of great players in this league and guys who can bring excitement to the game right there."

Formerly with the New Jersey Devils, Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski has tangled with Crosby more than anyone else on Detroit's roster.

The majority of the Red Wings have only seen Crosby in exhibition games, since the two teams did not meet in the regular season.

Rafalski said one of Crosby's skills in particular will jump out at his teammates right away when they take the ice at The Joe tonight.

"The speed that he plays with," Rafalski said. "His vision on the ice [also]. He sees the ice very well. He has the ability to make very difficult passes."

Crosby enters the finals tied with Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg for the NHL lead in scoring with 21 points in the playoffs, including 17 assists, but he will not be the only talented individual on the ice.

On one side you have Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. On the other you have Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said whichever team can contain the other's skill players will have an obvious leg up in the series.

"You're not going to stop them," Babcock said. "That's impossible. But you're going to try to slow them down and try to be in good spots defensively, and we're not a team that comes out to check you, per se, like some would and have defensive players against him."

Instead, Babcock said the best defense will be creating chances on the other end.

"We'll play skill on skill, and we believe that I think it's harder for skilled players to have to defend and play offense at the same time," Babcock said. "If they never have to worry about defending against you, I think it makes better for the offensive players."

Contact Zach Silka at:

zsilka@theblade.com.



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