PITTSBURGH, Pa. - It's a question that has been raised repeatedly by hockey columnists and commentators recently: What's wrong with Sidney Crosby?
The question seems to be rooted in statistical analyses that show a dip in his numbers from years past, along with expectations of unrelenting greatness heaped upon the Pittsburgh Penguins centre.
While theories have ranged from Crosby being slowed by a history of injuries to his age catching up with him, the Penguins captain had been quiet on the subject until now.
He partly bristled, partly shrugged when asked about the chatter after the Penguins practice Friday.
"I wouldn't change anything I'm doing, to be honest with you," the 27-year-old superstar said. "I'm working hard. I'm doing my best. If people's expectations are higher than mine, then I can't change that."
Crosby is the defending Art Ross and Hart trophy winner, and he has a shot at repeating with one or both. Going into Friday's games, Crosby was tied with Washington's Alex Ovechkin for second in league scoring with 70 points (23 goals and 47 assists), two points behind John Tavares of the New York Islanders.
While that might not seem like it leaves Crosby open for a lot of criticism, those on the side of doubt are pointing out that, at an average of 1.11 points per game this season, he is off of his career pace of 1.37, and the pace has certainly slowed since he recorded 24 points over the first month of the season. Some have stretched that to find a reduction in his situational productivity such as points per 20 or 60 minutes or five-on-five points per specified segment of time.
"Advanced stats weren't there as much years ago," Crosby said. "I think you can overanalyze stuff sometimes. Every year is different, every game is different, your division is different year to year. There are so many factors.
"To try to make it a clear-cut picture when it's not, I don't think is right. It doesn't really justify everything. We're always going to look at stats and all that stuff. As a player, whether it's going really good or really bad, you can't get caught up in stats in general."
If there is something ailing Crosby, it might be contagious.
It seems likely that the 2014-15 scoring champion will be the first with less than 100 points in a non-lockout season since Martin St. Louis, then with Tampa Bay, won the Art Ross with 94 points in 2003-04. That was the last season before a lockout led to sweeping changes to the game designed to open things up offensively. In Crosby's estimation, the NHL has backslid in that area.
"There's not a lot of room. You're seeing that," he said. "The game is different. The game is not the same as it was five years ago. There's less room. There are less power plays. To try to compare what you were able to do five years ago is just … you can't do it."
Crosby flashed an expression of disbelief when asked if he has made or needs to make concessions in his game based on age. When asked whether he still has a higher gear when he needs to call upon one, whether his hand-eye co-ordination is as sharp as in years past and whether he is healthy he smiled and said "Yeah."
Consistency is another area of concern for some. Among his 19 multi-point games this season, 11 have included at least three points. But he has been held without a point in a career-worst 26 of his 63 games.
In the hours before the Penguins' most recent game — a 6-4 win against Edmonton on Thursday in which Pittsburgh blew a four-goal lead — a local sports radio show tackled the question of whether something is wrong with Crosby's game. That night, Crosby had a goal and two assists and was perhaps the team's most consistent skater.
"For me, that's a big plus because you look for your captain to play the right way, to lead by example, and I thought he was really good start to finish," coach Mike Johnston said. "He's put together probably a great month of hockey at both ends of the ice."
Crosby admits to one facet of his game that he wishes were better this season — his goal total of 23.
"I'd love to score more," he said. "You can't explain why pucks hit posts and bounce out instead of in. I don't have a great explanation for you. Other than probably a handful of times this year, I feel like some of those pucks would usually find a way to go in and not out."