IF SIDNEY CROSBY believes the NHL's on-ice officials are out to get him--something he's hinted at a few times in his four months as a pro--the Penguins' Jan. 10 game against the Oilers probably did little to convince him otherwise. In the first period Pittsburgh's wunderkind center vaulted over the boards for a shift, lowered his head toward the fray ... and skated straight into the emphatically thrusting arm of a linesman waving off an icing call. The blow caught Crosby in the mouth; he collapsed to the ice, then staggered back to the bench with a busted lip.
It was an accident, but Crosby does have an alarming tendency toward run-ins with the refs. The 18-year-old has answered all questions about his readiness for the NHL--he leads the hapless Penguins, who have lost nine straight, with 23 goals--but he's displayed a low emotional boiling point. Crosby also leads his team in penalty minutes (72) and is gaining a reputation as a ref-baiter or, worse, someone who isn't above dramatic embellishment when he's hit. "I don't think he's a diver," said the Canucks' Daniel Sedin after Vancouver roughed him up in a Jan. 16 win. "[But] he went down easily a couple times."
Crosby does get more than his share of chances to draw whistles. The old hook-and-grab NHL may be dead for everyone else, but opponents have taken to manhandling the league's alleged savior in an effort to throw him off his game. It works: Crosby is able to fight through the checks, but he often snaps--at opponents and refs--out of frustration. Witness Pittsburgh's back-to-back losses to the Thrashers earlier this month, when Crosby took six penalties in the two games, including a diving minor and a misconduct for berating the officials. "It seems like he's trying to go after everybody," said Canucks center Brendan Morrison. "He's wasting too much energy on that instead of concentrating on playing."
A few weeks ago Pittsburgh captain and Crosby housemate Mario Lemieux lectured the rookie about keeping his composure and trying not to complain to officials. But the Penguins also seemed to acknowledge that their young star needs protection when they traded last week for Blackhawks enforcer Eric Cairns. (Cairns fought the Flyers' Turner Stevenson in his second game as a Penguin.) Still, unless Crosby matures quickly, he risks becoming known as a whiner in a sport that prizes stoicism in its stars. He seems to understand that. "I have to just keep my head and play," Crosby says.