PITTSBURGH — By RON COOK
The words came from Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. He was reacting to the suggestion that it's easy to feel sympathy for team captain Sidney Crosby, who lives to play hockey but has missed big chunks of his career because of injuries.
"You won't have to feel bad for Sid when he's playing this spring."
Bylsma's message was clear. It's Stanley Cup playoff time. Crosby should have plenty of games to save another injury-ravaged season.
Would it really surprise you if Crosby came back from a broken jaw to lead the Penguins to the Cup and was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the NHL's postseason most valuable player?
That would just seem right, wouldn't it?
The great Crosby is just 25 but has lost so much the past three seasons, just like his boss, mentor and former landlord Mario Lemieux did during his fabulous career.
Start with the 41 games Crosby missed in the second half of the 2010-11 season. He was running away with the NHL scoring title, averaging 1.61 points per game, and the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP when concussion-like symptoms ended his season in early January. The scoring title went to Vancouver's Daniel Sedin, who averaged 1.27 points per game. The Hart went to Anaheim's Corey Perry. Crosby also missed the seven-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. The Penguins would have won that series if he had been able to play.
Add the 20 games Crosby missed at the start of the 2011-12 season because of the concussion symptoms and the 40 he missed later in the season because of a neck problem. He played in the Penguins' six-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs but clearly wasn't at his best.
Throw in the 34 games Crosby missed at the start of this season because of the NHL lockout, although every player lost those games. But he also missed the final 12 games because of his jaw. Really, it was 13 because he was struck in the face with a puck in his first shift March 30 against the Islanders.
Crosby again was running away with the scoring title, averaging 1.56 points per game. That went to Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis, who averaged 1.25 points. Crosby also would have won the Hart in a landslide. Now, it seems possible that Washington's Alex Ovechkin could win it after leading the Capitals to the Southeast Division title by scoring an NHL-best 32 goals. Or perhaps Chicago's Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane could win it after each played a big part in the Blackhawks winning the league's Presidents' Trophy with 77 points, five more than the Penguins. There's no arguing Crosby is the best player in the world, but it's hard to vote for a guy who missed a quarter of the season.
Crosby also had a serious ankle injury midway through the 2007-08 season that forced him to sit out 22 games. Throw in a few other minor ailments that put him off the ice, add everything up and he has missed 152 games because of injuries. Toss in the 34 games lost because of the lockout and the total jumps to 186. That's more than 2 1/4 seasons, lost time that Crosby never will get back. It must make him want to cry. There never has been an athlete in this town who cared more about his sport than he does.
Lemieux must feel Crosby's pain. Certainly, he has felt it as Penguins owner on the many nights when his best player hasn't been on the ice even though the team has been remarkably successful without Crosby, going 8-4 this season and 89-47-16 over the years. But Lemieux also must feel it as a former player whose career was sabotaged by illness and injury.
Lemieux beat Hodgkin's disease in 1993. He had two major back surgeries and two hip surgeries. He retired from the game in 1997 but made a comeback in 2000. He was forced to retire again in 2006 because of a heart condition.
It's easy to argue Lemieux was the most gifted hockey player of all time. But Wayne Gretzky generally is considered the best, not just because of his amazing productivity but because he played in so many more games than Lemieux, 1,487 to 915. Gretzky averaged 1.92 points per game, best in NHL history. Lemieux is second at 1.88.
We'll never know just how much greater Lemieux could have been if he had been able to stay healthy.
Hopefully, we won't be wondering the same thing about Crosby when his career is finished.
(Contact Ron Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)