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Rossi: The game for Crosby is to change his | TribLIVE.com
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Rossi: The game for Crosby is to change his

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby breaks free against the Panthers on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby takes a shot on Panthers goaltender Al Montoya in the first period Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.

Sidney Crosby isn’t injured. That report comes from people within his inner circle. But even those folks cannot explain the diminishing returns provided this season by the Penguins’ captain, highest-paid player and heir to Mario Lemieux as franchise icon.

A member of the front office said Crosby has gladly accepted the expanded defensive responsibilities tasked by first-year coach Mike Johnston. Several teammates offered that Crosby has impossibly increased his intensity during and after practices. Ones who have known Crosby longest said his non-hockey life is as settled — and presumably comfortable — as ever.

If he is stressing the funk of his career, Crosby is doing a decent job of hiding it. Thursday night, after his 24th game without a point, he spied me in the hallway of Consol Energy Center and initiated what became one of the most comfortable conversations we’ve shared in a decade of what has been an up-and-down reporter/athlete relationship.

“Haven’t seen you around much,” Crosby said. “What’s going on?”

I had the same question for him.

After our talk, I’m convinced that answer is one we all should have seen coming but couldn’t because nobody likes to acknowledge the one opponent who is undefeated and never really challenged.

Father Time is a jerk. His most hurtful prank is sneaking up on us.

Crosby is 27, which seems so wonderfully young for a professional athlete. That age, or thereabouts that age, is thought to be the prime for an athlete. That’s what it is for the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen (28) and the Steelers’ Antonio Brown (26).

McCutchen and Brown have combined to play 11 seasons at the highest level of their respective sports. Crosby is finishing his 10th NHL season, and his 95 postseason games have him essentially working into a 12th campaign with the Penguins.

That’s a lot of whacks to the lower back, slashes behind the knees, hip checks into the boards and pucks shot off unprotected skate boots.

It’s all been too much for anybody to fairly expect continued dominance by Crosby. A toll was inevitable, and we all ignored the obvious signs last year, during and after the Olympics, that Crosby had already paid a steep price.

He’s not a Kid anymore. Nothing about him is — not his legs, not his recuperative ability, not his hockey-is-life focus. He has aged and matured, and now his game must mature with age. Lemieux’s did. So did the game of Crosby’s idol, Steve Yzerman.

The Penguins must change their game, too. Crosby’s help used to be hockey’s second-best center and its premier third-line center. Something obvious has been missing for the past three seasons. That something (or someone: Jordan Staal) should be sought this summer.

Right now, Crosby is dealing with the weakest supporting cast since he was a rookie, a coaching staff that increasingly appears unable to bring accountability, and a franchise overhaul that failed to temper unreasonable — if not crushing — Cup-or-bust expectations.

General manager Jim Rutherford couldn’t fix all of that before the trade deadline even if he added the young Crosby. And the precocious, continuously breathtaking, awesome-every-night version of Crosby isn’t available to the Penguins anymore.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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