Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oh, Sid. You're Adorable.

In times when the NCAA Tournament has gone so haywire that three of your Final Four teams are knocked out by the end of the second round, it's important to remember that other items on the sports landscape can still attract your attention before Major League Baseball's Opening Day.

I speak, of course, of hockey.

Yeah, I know, you all probably get tired of me talking about how awesome hockey is, even though it is, in fact, awesome. The 82-game regular season can, at times, seem like it drags on for me too, even when I'm pumping out these for a living. But I'll still argue to the death with any of you that it's more entertaining than that dog and pony show we call the NBA regular season. The speed, skill, tension and penchant for close games put it a cut above for me.

Take for example last night's game between the Kings and Avalanche, both exciting, young teams, both featuring future superstars on their rosters, both in the heat of an almost ridiculously logjammed playoff hunt in the Western Conference. Every night, we are treated to a game that is at least close for most of regulation, but on a pretty regular basis we get a game like this one, where two zany goals are scored and one of them forces overtime with less than ten seconds left.

And then sometimes we get games like last night's showdown between Detroit and Pittsburgh. Now the dislike between these two is well documented at this point. After consecutive pairings in the Stanley Cup Finals the last two seasons, with each team taking a title of their own, it's clear there is no love lost. As a piece by SI's resident hockey guru Mike Farber detailed last week, fortunes are slightly different for the Red Wings this time around after being battered by injuries all season, but as their 3-1 win highlighted by Valtteri Filppula's through-the-wickets goal showed, they're still feisty. And, uh, they made Sidney Crosby feel it last night.

Yeah, that's Sidney. The NHL, NBC and Sportscenter have been pumping him up to you for the past five years as the next great player in the League, and they have good reason. He's already the youngest captain in NHL history to hoist the Stanley Cup, the youngest MVP in League history, the only teenager in the history of the four major North American sports leagues to win a scoring title and you may recall he also scored the overtime-winner in the Gold Medal Game for Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics last month.

So, uh, yeah, he's pretty good.

But that said, a not so well-guarded secret is that on the ice he's, you know, kind of a jerk. This would hardly separate him from most of the great players in the League. After all, being a constant physical target will get you fed up and sometimes you have no choice but to retaliate. But last night's postgame scrap was particularly fun for me. For one, it's not often that you see two dynamic skill players like Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg mixing it up. The last time I can think of is when Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier dropped the gloves in the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals, and those were special circumstances.

This was just a regular season game, but what fascinated me was the Wings' all out jump on Crosby as soon as the jostling began. While "goalie fight" may be the two greatest words in hockey, it isn't often you see a star player get a faceful of catching glove.

Now, Sid is no stranger to mixing it up. Since his first fight more than two years ago he's scrapped several times, with some results more dignified than others.

And while mixups like this make Crosby an irritating player to go against, to say nothing of his skill -- and with the Penguins currently locked in a fierce division race with my Devils as the season winds down I have reason to dislike him -- I can't help but appreciate such a talented superstar who isn't afraid to display the grit once in a while. Crosby seems destined to become one of the greats, and while I can't possibly fathom that anyone will ever transcend the sport again like Wayne Gretzky did, there will always be one aspect of the game at with Crosby has already topped the Great One, and by a fair margin at that.

So if, like me, your bracket is completely shot, remember that nearly every night you can sit down in front of your TV and maybe catch one of the greatest athletes in the world display his skill and, well, try to beat the crap out of someone. After all, when's the last time you saw Kobe Bryant or Lebron James take a swing. If you're lucky, you might even catch a buzzer beater. No, not one of those buzzer beaters. Hockey buzzer beaters. They happen more often than you think.

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