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Molinari: NHL Take Notice — Sidney Crosby for Hart Trophy



Sidney Crosby PPG Paints Arena locker room

Stanley Cups are not won during the first two months of the regular season.

Hart trophies aren’t won then, either.

So no one should be frantically working out the details of a parade down the Boulevard of the Allies just because the Pittsburgh Penguins have won five games in a row and are 12-2-2 in their past 16.

Just as no one from the league should be shipping off the Hart to an engraver, to have Sidney Crosby’s name etched on it for the third time simply because he has been playing at a level with few, if any, equals.

After all, the Hart voting won’t take place for about four months, and it will be two more after that before the NHL’s champion for 2022-23 is determined.

But for now, both the Penguins and Crosby deserve to be included in conversations about them.

The Penguins have earned 26 of a possible 32 points, dating to a 4-1 victory in Washington Nov. 9. That pace, projected over an 82-game season, would yield 133 points, one more than the NHL record set by Montreal in 1976-77.

Those Canadiens lost just eight times in an 80-game season, going 60-8-12, with the third figure being ties, not overtime/shootout losses. (An aside: Jim Roberts, the late Penguins assistant coach who was a utility man for Montreal then, insisted that coach Scotty Bowman was furious with his players after each of those defeats.)

The 2022-23 Penguins, of course, are not going to maintain their current pace. Heck, they proved earlier this season that they’re capable of losing eight games in a matter of weeks, let alone a full season.

But they have managed to stay uncharacteristically healthy so far — they’ve lost just 37 man-games to injuries and illness — and their power play is beginning to look like the game-changing force that it should have been since mid-October.

Factor in a penalty-kill that has allowed one goal in the past 13 games, some outstanding offensive talent, consistently high-quality goaltending and a proven ability to play stingy defense when so inclined, and — as of Dec. 11, anyway — the Penguins look quite capable of an extended stay in the playoffs next spring.

Oh, and they have at least one other thing working in their favor: A guy who, with a third of the season behind him, is playing as well as anyone in the league. Maybe better.

Never mind that most people outside of Western Pennsylvania don’t seem to have noticed. Not yet, anyway.

Perhaps it’s because Crosby, having turned 35 in August, has reached an age when most NHL players are suiting up only for alumni games. He was the face of the league for a lot of years, but in recent seasons, the focus has shifted to younger players like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl, and Cale Makar, among others.

That’s understandable and good for the game. After all, a sport that dwells in the past probably doesn’t have much of a future.

But Crosby, one of the oldest guys on the NHL’s oldest team, isn’t ready to relinquish his place among the NHL’s most impactful players. And people — including those who select the winner of the Hart, which goes to the player “adjudged to be the most valuable to his team” — are going to have no choice but to notice.

If Crosby is not the best 200-foot player in the game — and the belief here is that he is — he’s at least a medalist. He doesn’t kill penalties, but if he did (which would be a terrible idea because of the risk of injury), his instincts and abilities would allow him to excel.

Crosby no longer has McDavid’s penchant for making breathtaking plays on a regular basis, but this game is about more than creating spectacular content for the highlights shows.

McDavid, of course, already has a pair of Harts and likely will collect a few more before he gives up the game, and might well get his third this season.

Jason Robertson, Erik Karlsson, Mitch Marner and Draisaitl figure to get support from Hart voters, too, and more than a few others will force their way into the discussion by the end of the regular season.

There is no shortage of exceptional talent in the NHL, and anyone who thinks Crosby has been bumped from that group simply isn’t paying attention.

Not everything he does shows up in his personal stats — his dive to keep a puck in the Buffalo zone Friday night, making Rickard Rakell’s goal a few seconds later possible, almost defies belief, let alone description — but he ranks sixth in the league in scoring, first in even-strength points (31) and second in even-strength goals (15).

He has just two power-play goals, which is good for a tie for 103rd place in the NHL, but with the Penguins suddenly becoming proficient with the extra man, that total should begin to rise.

Oh, and Crosby also has won 52.8 percent of his faceoffs while handling 589 of them. That’s 264 more than Jeff Carter, who has taken the second-most among the Penguins.

Naturally, Crosby’s game has changed over the course of his 17-plus seasons in the NHL, but at least one thing hasn’t: He was one of the finest players in the league when he stepped onto the ice at Continental Airlines Arena on Oct. 5, 2005 for his first NHL shift, and he still is.

If that continues for the balance of the season — and there’s little reason to doubt that it will — Hart voters will have no choice but to notice.