Updated at: 03/22/2013 6:39 AM
By WILL GRAVES
(AP) PITTSBURGH - The fear is gone. The doubt too for that matter. Ditto the hesitation.
A year into his comeback from the concussion-like symptoms that nearly derailed Sidney Crosby’s career, the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar is back atop the NHL scoring race thanks to his unparalleled mix of artistry, speed and grit.
It wasn’t the avalanche of points _ 50 and counting heading into Friday’s game against the New York Islanders _ that let Crosby’s teammates know their captain was back at the top of his considerable powers. No, the proof lay in the tight places around the net where Crosby makes his living better than anyone else.
"To play down low in the defensive zone against him is a nightmare," Penguins forward Craig Adams said. "It’s a long way back, but I can’t imagine a guy playing better than he is right now. You can’t get the puck from him."
Perhaps because Crosby doesn’t have to worry about getting knocked around so much anymore. Don’t get him wrong, the game has never been faster. The players have never been bigger and he’s never drawn more attention.
Yet thanks to a series of rule changes made by the league and a shift in attitude by the guys wearing the sweaters, players say the NHL is as safe now as it’s perhaps ever been.
"I can only speak to the games we played in, there’s been a difference," Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I think guys are a little bit more conscious, a little more respectful."
In the 2-plus years since Crosby sustained a concussion following a blindside hit from Washington’s David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic, the league has outlawed shots to the head entirely and given senior vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan great leeway in handing out punishment for dangerous plays.
Though Crosby says it’s still too early to tell whether the steps taken by the league have made any impact on the number of concussions sustained by players, he does see evidence of guys playing more under control.
"I know it’s changed from my first couple years, that’s for sure," Crosby said. "The game is much tighter."
Crosby pointed to the average number of penalties as evidence that sticks, elbows, etc., aren’t flying quite as much as they used to. Teams are averaging 3.6 power-play opportunities a game this season, down from 5.8 per game during Crosby’s rookie year in 2005-06.
Part of the decline can be attributed to the decreasing amount of open ice. After offenses flourished following the 2004-05 lockout, the pendulum has swung back to more conservative, defensive-minded schemes. The result is more clutching and grabbing, sure, but also a decision by players to avoid the kind of unnecessary penalties that can tilt games.
It doesn’t always lead to thrilling hockey, but it can lead to smarter, safer play.
"Obviously everyone needs to protect their heads and do the right thing in that mindset," Nashville forward David Legwand said. "But we also want to win hockey games and play the right way."
The definition of what "right way" is, however, remains entirely up for interpretation. Where some players see progress, New York Rangers coach John Tortorella sees a problem. Tortorella believes the game has become almost too sanitized, particularly the closer to the goal the puck gets.
"Underneath the hashmarks, I think you need to let us play a little bit more," he said. "And I kind of miss that part of it. I know it’s not going to come back to that. But I thought that was a big part of hockey back in those years, and we certainly can’t do those type of things now."
Tortorella isn’t embracing brutality as much as he is vocalizing what is, in some ways, an identity crisis for many contact sports. Hockey is trying to preserve the spirit of the game while also protecting the health of its players.
Getting hard data on concussions is difficult because many teams remain vague about the nature of an injury, often never getting more specific than "upper body" and "lower body." Even the Penguins _ one of the few progressive franchises in the league when it comes to discussing such matters _ grew reticent when reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin left a game against Florida last month after sliding into the end boards.
Pittsburgh declined to label Malkin’s injury as a concussion until two days had passed. The play in question, unlike the hit that sent Crosby’s career into crisis, however, was clean. And the league understands that no amount of legislation will be able to eradicate head trauma from the game for good.
Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland believes the number of players diagnosed with concussions this season are down compared to last year but even he is working mostly off anecdotal evidence.
"I think we’re doing as good of a job as we ever have in protecting our players," he said. "But, when you have 6-foot-2, 200-plus pound players on skates going 25 miles per hour and they’re hitting each other, you’re going to have some injuries."
Don’t mistake positive steps, however, for victory. Every week Shanahan is forced to review tape of questionable plays.
Buffalo forward Patrick Kaleta received a five-game suspension three weeks ago after sending New York Rangers forward Brad Richards into the boards. Philadelphia’s Harry Zolnierczyk sat four games for launching his shoulder at the head of Ottawa’s Mike Lundin.
Both penalties _ like all others handed out by the league _ were accompanied by a video from Shanahan breaking down the play and explaining what the guilty player did wrong. Coaches can then use the video as teaching moments during team meetings.
Adapting can take time. Yet there are success stories. Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke was considered one of the league’s dirtiest players two years ago but has cleaned up his act to the point where when he does something wrong, it is almost a shock. He earned a rare double-minor for boarding and unsportsmanlike conduct in a win over Washington on Tuesday.
Cooke said he knew he needed to change if he wanted to extend his career. And even players who lack Cooke’s pedigree as an enforcer have taken a hard look at how they go about their business.
Adams, a grinder who has spent 12 years in the NHL as an aggressive forechecker, admits there are times he gets frustrated when he skates 200 feet only to have an opposing player intentionally turn his back to Adams to try and invite a penalty. Yet Adams _ and most of his brethren _ understand the need to hold up instead of following through.
Mistakes will happen. So will concussions. Yet Adams sees a league trying to maintain a portion of its soul while also getting rid of the kind of cheap shots that almost prematurely ended Crosby’s career.
"We’re avoiding those hits," he said. "I think it’s starting to get into the culture that that’s not OK."
AP Sports Writers John Wawrow in Buffalo, Teresa Walker in Nashville and AP hockey writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)