PITTSBURGH — A year ago at this time, everybody in the NHL was wondering what was wrong with Sidney Crosby.
Since then, almost everything has gone right for the league's biggest name — a Stanley Cup, a Conn Smythe Trophy, a World Cup and, now, the best start to his career.
Almost assuredly, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been watching as Crosby plays some of the best hockey of his career — and on Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena, a NHL No. 1 draft pick gets to go against the league's No. 1 player on his home ice. For the second time this week.
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On Tuesday, 2015 No. 1 pick Connor McDavid put on a whirlwind of a show with three dazzling assists, yet they weren't enough as Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins beat McDavid's Edmonton Oilers 4-3.
Now, following the Penguins' first regulation loss on home ice this season by 4-2 to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, Crosby will match up for the first time against Matthews, the top pick in the 2016 draft.
Matthews enjoyed the most exceptionable debut of any rookie in NHL history with an opening night four goals — he scored on his first three shots, no less — against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 12.
“He got everything out of the way in his first game,” Crosby said Friday, referring to Matthews getting a lot of career firsts in a memorable debut.
The Maple Leafs are 6-5-3 overall and 4-1 in their last five games after scoring four consecutive goals in the third period to beat the Philadelphia Flyers 6-3 Friday night. Morgan Rielly had a goal and three assists.
Quite understandably, Matthews hasn't quite kept up that pace — he has two goals in his subsequent (12) games — but then who could? Not even Crosby has scored like that; he's never had a four-goal game in the NHL.
It doesn't seem that long ago that Crosby was the young phenom lighting up the league, and he knows what Matthews and McDavid are going through.
“That's some of the best times, going to buildings for the first time, playing against guys you were watching on TV year before — it's probably the most exciting time, your first year or two in the league,” Crosby said.
Then again, Crosby never has scored like this. His goal Thursday against the Wild was his fifth in four games and his ninth overall in eight games; he missed the Penguins' first six games with a concussion.
The last Penguins player to score nine goals in his first eight games in a season? Mario Lemieux during his comeback season in 2000-01, when he also had nine goals in his first eight.
So imagine how Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk felt Thursday night when, with his team playing its first game in five days, the Penguins captain was alone in front of him, with the puck, on Crosby's first shift of the game.
“Any time Sid wants to backhand it into my chest, I'm fine with that,” Dubnyk said, with a smile. “His backhand is as hard as many forehands. Obviously, not the guy you want to see standing in front of you that early in the game.”
Or any time, the way Crosby is playing now — at age 29, 11 years since he broke into the NHL as Sid the Kid. That “kid” persona? He's handed that off to players such as Matthews and McDavid.
“It brings excitement (to the league), to see them having such a big impact on the league and on their team is definitely a good thing,” he said.
Crosby's own start-of-the-season flurry is even better than that in 2010-11, when he had six goals in his first eight games en route to getting 66 points in his first 32 games, only to sustain a season-ending concussion the first week of January.
As Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said before the Thursday game — Crosby is the best player in the world, and defending against the best player in the world in any sport is a major challenge.
Crosby's great start has helped the Penguins go 9-3-2 in their first 14 games, aided by a 6-1-1 record at PPG Paints Arena and an identical 6-1-1 record in their last eight overall.