Sidney Crosby exerts his will in Team Canada’s dream start

Mike Babcock had plenty of praise for Sidney Crosby and his line, which generated a lot of offense for the team and was a line that the Czech Republic struggled to contain.

TORONTO – There was a clear breakaway in the opening minute and an opening goal scored from behind the net. There was a full-out backcheck that denied Vladimir Sobotka a scoring chance and an assist on the second goal.

And just in case there was any doubt about Sidney Crosby exerting a will that matches his immense talent, the Team Canada captain separated Michal Kempny from the puck and promptly provided a leaping screen as linemate Patrice Bergeron made it 3-0.

That it all happened in the opening 20 minutes of Team Canada’s foray into this World Cup was difficult to comprehend. And to think: Crosby accomplished all of this while playing in just over four of them.

“That’s the type of player that if you’re a young kid watching how to play hockey, that’s the way you do it,” teammate Carey Price said after Saturday’s 6-0 win over the Czech Republic. “That’s all I have to say about that.”

When last we saw Crosby in a meaningful environment, he was detailing the San Jose Sharks to death. That helped earn him the Conn Smythe Trophy along with his second Stanley Cup in June.

When last we saw Crosby in a flag-waving, red-splashed arena like this one, he was scoring the golden goal at the Vancouver Olympics. On that Sunday afternoon in February 2010, veteran forward Joe Thornton was asked what he thought of Crosby.

“You’re happy he was born in Canada,” Thornton replied. “Thank god.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

For it was Thornton who was literally laughing while tapping a puck into an open cage in the second period after Crosby – who else? – found him with a ridiculous backhand pass.

That made it 4-0 for Team Canada. The hosts were having fun.

Crosby was plus-4 and arguably in the midst of his most impressive individual showing in a best-on-best game for Team Canada. There have obviously been bigger wins and moments and goals, but rarely this level of other-worldliness on an ice full of superstars.

“He was great,” said teammate Brent Burns. “He was a leader. He’s the best player in the world and he dominated tonight.”

Afterwards, a member of the foreign press even asked Crosby if he was human.

That No. 87 is a spectacular player is not news in itself, but his early contributions bode extremely well for Team Canada. There has been no drawn out debate about his linemates like we’ve seen in the past – Bergeron and Brad Marchand have been up to the task since Day 1 – and it’s helped reinforce a general sense of cohesion among this group.

Crosby and Bergeron, in particular, have a built-in familiarity that dates all the way back to a dominant world junior tournament in 2005. One of the creature comforts is the fact they’re both essentially playing centre at the same time.

“We can read off each other that way, and he’s a right-hand shot – you’re working off forehands a lot more,” Crosby explained. “We like to play a similar style. We’re comfortable just reading the play and reacting. We don’t have to be too robotic out there, we can just kind of play whatever position needs to be played.”

There is still a long way to go in this tournament, but Team Canada seems remarkably settled.

Even though Crosby insisted prior to Saturday’s game that there is pressure in playing a World Cup in front of an expectant crowd at Air Canada Centre, you wouldn’t know it by the demeanour of the players or the way they performed.

Price slammed the door on a strong start by the Czechs and left the impression he might also pick up right where he left off in Sochi.

Ryan Getzlaf bulled his way around the ice and was a noticeable presence throughout. Jonathan Toews was dogged on the puck – forechecking, backchecking and ultimately scoring on a pretty give-and-go with Getzlaf.

Steven Stamkos and John Tavares had moments both dazzling and dangerous.

We know inherently that if Team Canada plays up to its capabilities, the odds are fairly high it will win another best-on-best event here. This was a dream start.

On its own, it doesn’t guarantee very much – “The team that wins today usually gets a little fatter tomorrow,” warned head coach Mike Babcock. “The important thing to do is just live scared and get better tomorrow,” – but when your best is at his best, everything tends to look a little better.

Seeing Crosby play this well has always been a good sign for Team Canada in the past.

“He was a star in Sochi, was a star in Vancouver,” said Babcock. “What you saw tonight though is he got points. Everyone likes to get points; Sid likes to get points, too. … As the team gets better, he has to get better but it’s a good start for his line.

“His line’s good.”