On and off the ice, Armstrong vital roles for Pens
Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Writer
Colby Armstrong no longer has a place on the same line as Sidney Crosby. Yet the rugged winger remains a big reason why Crosby is now running away with the League scoring title.
The 24-year-old Armstrong keeps the in-demand Crosby, the game?s biggest emerging superstar, grounded with a cutting jibe or a friendly smile.
Whatever it takes to get Crosby laughing a little and forgetting about the enormous responsibility he is asked to shoulder as the 19-year-old cornerstone of the franchise, says Armstrong.
Armstrong uses his quick smile and easy-going demeanor to keep things loose in the Pens? dressing room. As often as not, Crosby will be the target of Armstrong?s lighthearted attacks.
?That's just the way I am, my normal personality,? says Armstrong. ?You know, you get together and poke fun at each other. (Crosby)?s got a lot on his plate. Especially last year, you come in here and you see a media circle around him like I've never seen before and he's only 18-years-old. So if you can loosen him up or make light of a situation that is pretty serious and it doesn't have to be ... you know, it makes it a little easier, especially when you are so young.?
Perhaps that is why the two youngsters clicked so well last season when Armstrong was thrust onto the top line soon after Michel Therrien took over for the fired Eddie Olczyk. During the second half of the Pens? 2005-06 season, Armstrong averaged nearly a point per game -- finishing with 16 goals and 40 points in 47 games -- to announce his legitimate candidacy as a permanent linemate for ?Sid the Kid.?
Crosby certainly didn?t mind having Armstrong on his flank, which was how the two players started this season before Armstrong?s scoring woes and the emergence of other players broke up that tandem.
"It seems like I have always had somebody like (Armstrong) on my line," Crosby said earlier this season. "He plays the way I like to play. I like to work for the puck, so it means we are always 2-on-1-ing the puck. I think it?s important for us to force the issue. That's the way you cause turnovers and create chances. With him out there, a lot of things tend to happen."
Now, Armstrong is playing mostly third-line duty ? perhaps a more reasonable assignment given his skill set ? and can only help Crosby through his off-ice contributions.
?I don't know what it is like to be in his shoes, but I know if you are having a good time doing whatever you are doing, it's going to be easier,? says Armstrong. ?I don't know; I just try to loosen him up a little bit. He's a real serious guy around the rink and it pays off. He does a great job on the ice. But, he's different off the ice. He's easy to joke around with.?
An example involves Armstrong talking about the Memorial Cup he won in 2002 as a member of the Red Deer Rebels. Crosby lost a chance at the Memorial Cup when his Rimouski team was defeated by London in the 2005 championship game.
At the time, early in the season, Armstrong was talking about how the older players on the team are great with the team?s young core, humoring them when it comes to their ?crappy? junior stories.
Naturally, Armstrong was asked if winning the Memorial Cup ? junior hockey?s version of the Stanley Cup ? was one of those ?crappy? junior stories.
?No, that's a great junior story,? Armstrong said, adding a quick chuckle. ?I bring it up whenever I have to.?
Most often, it seems, it is brought up to get Crosby?s goat.
When asked about the story, Crosby just smiled and said go ask Armstrong about the World Junior Championships. Crosby starred for Team Canada while Armstrong was one of the final cuts for that same team during his eligibility.
Again, Armstrong just smiles at the counter from Crosby. That disappointment still stings, but is in the past. Today, Armstrong is in the NHL. No, he is no longer riding shotgun for the game?s most explosive offensive player, but third-line duty on one of the NHL?s hottest teams is still pretty good duty for any young player.
Armstrong knows that he has made it as far as a boy from Lloydminster, Saskatchewan can. After all, Armstrong is playing hockey ? a game he has loved since his earliest days ? at the highest level possible. Plus, he is part of the nucleus of a young team that most hockey experts believe is on its way to becoming a force ? sooner rather than later ? in the NHL.
Despite having to demote Armstrong from top-line duty because of the player?s lack of production ? Armstrong has just six goals this season ? Therrien still has the utmost faith in the grinding right wing.
?We want him to contribute offensively, like everyone,? Therrien told Pittsburgh reporters earlier this week. "But in the meantime, he's having a huge role on our team. Killing penalties, being a good checker, making sure he plays the system well, being a tough guy to play against. That's his bread and butter. As long as he does that, he's going to be fine.?
And, those are the things on which Armstrong has been concentrating.
He is Therrien?s first choice to kill penalties, averaging close to four minutes of kill time per game for a Penguin team that is still finding its way playing against man-advantage situations. Overall, he is seeing 17 minutes of ice time per game and is a plus-3 for the season. Armstrong also brings the sandpaper and jam his coaches ask for. His 48 hits rank a reasonable seventh on the team. His 51 penalty minutes also rank seventh and include a memorable opening-night fight against Nolan Baumgartner of Philadelphia that had the Mellon Arena crowd in a frenzy.
?I just play hard,? Armstrong says. ?I just work hard and I am an up-and-down guy, get a couple of big hits and do my part.?
That, right there, describes third-line duty to a tee. And, it is, for that reason, that Therrien is happy with Armstrong?s new role as a lower-line grinder.
?We always figured that Colby Armstrong would become a good checker in this League, a good third-line guy," Therrien told reporters. "That was the plan, and that's what he's doing right now.?
That, and helping Crosby navigate the often demanding off-ice existence as a bonafide NHL superstar.