UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) – Sidney Crosby stared in, lined up his shot and let it fly.

But the 18-year-old phenom’s toss of a rolled up ball of tape just missed falling into the head hole of his teammate’s chest protector.

Well, he can’t hit the target all the time.

Crosby was relaxed Wednesday as he and the Pittsburgh Penguins prepared for the following night’s contest against the New York Islanders. No. 87 stayed on the ice after practice longer than many of the 20-somethings and 30-somethings and even 40-somethings with whom he shares a locker room.

The Penguins are one game into a five-game trip, their longest of the season, that is taking Crosby into New York for the first time. He’s gotten close to the big city, having played twice in New Jersey – including his first NHL game on opening night last month.

On Monday, he’ll really be on the big stage at Madison Square Garden. He’s never seen the building or Manhattan. All he knows is that it’s a busy place with lots of traffic.

“I’m happy to go everywhere,” said Crosby, just moments after being picked as this season’s first NHL rookie of the month. “I know the history of that building, but every place is fun to go to right now. It’s all new.”

Crosby is quickly becoming the household name in United States hockey circles, as he’s been for years in Canada.

Billed as “The Next One,” the Nova Scotia native is finding himself as the headliner on a team that sports Mario Lemieux – who is already in the Hall of Fame.

While the Islanders faced Boston at home Tuesday night, numerous commercials ran on the center ice video board touting that tickets were still available for Crosby’s first appearance on Long Island.

The fact that it could be one of the last for Lemieux – who celebrated his 40th birthday last month – didn’t even draw a mention.

“Actually, it’s kind of nice,” said Lemieux, the Penguins’ player-owner. “We’re promoting our young guys in the NHL and players who are the future of the league, not the guys who are 40 or 42 years old.”

Crosby is earning his billing on the ice and not merely relying on reputation.

Through Pittsburgh’s first 12 games, the center has two goals and 13 assists – tying linemate Mark Recchi for the team lead with 15 points. The only disappointing aspect is the team is only 2-5-5.

“He’s everything we expected,” Recchi said. “It’s great that he could come in and do a good job like this in his first month under all this pressure.”

Lemieux is the third man on that line, and he has no problem sharing ice or billboards with the kid who lives in his house in Pittsburgh.

“He’s been our best player in pretty much every game,” the No. 1 pick in the 1984 draft said. Crosby might even feel more at home Thursday night against the Islanders than in most other games. There will be plenty of other players out there who know what it’s like to go very high in the draft.

Along with Lemieux, Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro went No. 1 – the first netminder to hold that distinction – and New York forward Alexei Yashin was taken No. 2.

“When I was drafted there wasn’t so much high expectations of me. Nobody knew I’d go so high like that,” Yashin said. “With him it’s different because there is a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations.”

It’s one thing to have to live up to being the top pick in the draft but quite another to draw comparisons to Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky before you can legally drive.

“I’m not worried about coming in here and putting the pressure on myself to get four points every night and carry the team because I’m not going to do that,” Crosby said.

After Wednesday’s formal practice ended, Crosby found time to play.

While standing near the front of the net, Crosby peppered a Penguins goalie with shots that were taken as he stood flat-footed on his skates. With pinpoint precision and lots of power behind the shots, Crosby proceeded to pick off corners of the net with unstoppable drives.

“I’ve heard some wonderful things, and every report I have is better than the next,” Islanders coach Steve Stirling said. “I read our scouting reports … and after every time I’d ask how he was, and everyone said he’s the real deal.”

Lemieux said he didn’t have specific memories of his first NHL year. He also came to a Penguins team that was at the bottom of the standings the season before, but that squad didn’t have near the talent that is filling the old arena in Pittsburgh on a nightly basis now.

For that, Lemieux can thank Crosby – the boy wonder who owns the hockey spotlight across North America.

“I don’t want to downplay it and say it’s something that happens every day because it’s not. But I’ve been in a lot of similar situations the last few years,” Crosby said. “My focus doesn’t change when I go to a bigger venue than normal or a place where I might be more excited. For me it’s got to be the same hockey, and I have a job to do.

“I’ve never looked at it as a burden and I don’t think I ever will. It’s exciting. It means that people are interested in hockey and that’s important. That’s the best part about it.”

AP-ES-11-02-05 1833EST


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