Jim Souhan: Crosby has Lemaire searching for superlatives

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 31, 2007 - 12:01 AM

The Penguins phenom came back to Minnesota and had the Wild coach wishing there were two of him ... one in a home uniform.

Jacques Lemaire is as masterful with understatement as he is with the neutral-zone trap.

With a French-Canadian lilt that transforms Marian Gaborik into "Mary-Ann," and the ability to invert sentences like Yoda, the Wild coach offers insights and hockey philosophy in a soft-spoken tone that makes listeners lean forward in anticipation.

Tuesday morning, Lemaire raved about Penguins phenom and Shattuck-St. Mary's product Sidney Crosby. Tuesday night, Lemaire watched Crosby become the third opponent ever to score four points at Xcel Energy Center, in Pittsburgh's 4-2 victory.

Lemaire praised Wes Walz's checking line for its defense on Crosby -- even though Crosby's line produced nine points.

The performance left Lemaire feeling covetous. "I'd love to have one on our club," he said of Crosby, "if they make any more."

Crosby's first two points were the product of scorer's luck -- being in position to benefit from a fortuitous bounce to teammate Evgeni Malkin. His next two points were the product of a scorer's skill -- putting a power-play pass onto the tape of Petr Sykora in the slot, and putting on a burst of speed to create a breakaway goal.

After the game, Crosby, who played in front of high school coach Tom Ward and a few friends, said he and Malkin, his Russian linemate and fellow phenom, are learning to play together.

Lemaire would probably appreciate the understatement. "We're still trying to communicate a little better," Crosby said. "I think once we do that, we'll improve. But hockey is the universal language sometimes."

Crosby is as fluent as he is fluid. "I think he handles himself probably the best I've seen," Lemaire said. "The best, for sure, as a kid, 18, 19, 20 years old."

Lemaire played on legendary teams. He has been employed by teams that have won 11 Stanley Cups. He is uninterested in hype, as the NHL tries to market Crosby, with good reason, as the next Gretzky or Lemieux.

Still, Lemaire raved. "He's among the top players, there's no doubt," Lemaire said. "And he will be the top player. I think he is right now, in the National Hockey League.

"It's hard to compare, because you look at his size, there were players of his size [in the past]. But work like he works, they will not."

This would have been a more entertaining and meaningful test had the Wild been at full strength. Marian Gaborik, Pavol Demitra and Niklas Backstrom are three of the four or five most important Wild players, and they were all out Tuesday because of apparently contagious groin injuries.

Without star power, the Wild tried to match up defensively with Crosby and Malkin, but discovered that the two scorers are strong on the puck and tough around the net.

Does someone of Lemaire's era compare to Crosby? "Probably, they have the same talent, but they were different," Lemaire said. "He's the perfect kid you want on your team. He's an example. He's young and he's got, it seems, the experience to be a leader on his team because of his work ethic.

"I can't compare him to any of the players I've seen in the past."

Was he aware of Crosby when he played at Shattuck-St. Mary's? "I heard his name," Lemaire said. "But I had to see it."

Thanks to the silliness of NHL scheduling, Crosby had to wait three seasons into his NHL career to make his return to Minnesota, and who knows when he'll return?

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    Tuesday October 30, 2007

    The fans at Xcel Energy Center got their first look at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in person, and the Penguins young stars did not disappoint, but the Wild did.

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