"Why are you wearing a Rangers hat?" yelled the fan in the back rows of Madison Square Garden's famed blue seats last week. It appeared to be a valid question, directed at a guy a few rows below wearing the Rangers cap as well as a Sidney Crosby No. 87 Penguins jersey. It turned out, however, to be a question that could be answered without words, as the fan in the mismatched jersey and hat stood up to reveal the third part of his ensemble: a pink tutu around his waist.
It takes a special set of circumstances to inspire such an elaborate outfit, however tasteless it may be. But that's just how unpopular Crosby is in certain arenas outside of Pittsburgh. In buildings from New York to Philadelphia and beyond, the anti-Crosby shirts and signs and chants have become a staple of games involving Sid's Penguins. Even Crosby's exceptionally talented teammate, Evgeni Malkin, doesn't have to absorb nearly as much abuse. That level of vitriol is reserved for just one player.
And this spring, Tutu Guy and those like him have been knee deep in Crosby schadenfreude. His Penguins were upset last night by a lower seed for the fifth straight season, and Crosby scored just one goal in the Pens' 13 playoff games.
The stats don't even tell the whole story, though. Crosby couldn't hide his frustration as the Rangers came back from a 3-1 deficit in their second-round series. He was visibly irritated and lost his composure at exactly the wrong time. At one point in Game 6, Crosby speared New York's Dominic Moore in the crotch, setting off a scrum in which Henrik Lundqvist squirted Crosby with water as he skated to the dressing room. At another point in the series, cameras caught Crosby, however briefly, arguing with Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma on the bench.
Crosby's attitude -- or at least, the one he was projecting on the ice -- was such a concern that Penguins owner Mario Lemieux paid his captain a visit in the locker room after Game 6, not unlike the way he met with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to calm him down during the first round against Columbus. But Crosby's body language wasn't much better in Game 7, in which he was a minus-1 with no points and two shots on goal.
Crosby is hardly the only reason the Penguins are going home early yet again. The excellent team defense that had put the Rangers on the brink of elimination buckled in Game 5 and wasn't nearly as dominant as the series progressed. Pittsburgh's power play, on which Crosby is just one piece, was dreadful for the entire round. And the Rangers really do seem to have rallied around Martin St. Louis, whose mother passed away suddenly last week.
In fact, Crosby played fine for stretches in the postseason, even if he wasn't scoring goals. (He finished with eight assists in 13 games.) But even if Bylsma loses his job, this year's disappointing postseason will be pinned on Crosby more than any of his teammates -- especially since playoff wild card Marc-Andre Fleury can't really be blamed this time around. (Fleury did let in a couple of soft goals against the Rangers, but the change in momentum in the series wasn't really on him.) The Penguins needed Crosby to play like the MVP that he was all season and to lead his teammates on and off the ice. But even as Bylsma mixed up his lines, Crosby was kept more or less in check by a stellar Rangers defensive effort.
I live in New York (full disclosure: I'm a Rangers fan), and in the aftermath of Game 7, virtually every post in my Facebook feed that mentioned the game made a reference to Crosby. (The word "crybaby" made multiple appearances, while the meaner comments wouldn't be appropriate for this site.) Fans outside of Pittsburgh, it seemed, saw the Crosby they wanted to see: pissed off, frustrated, struggling and, ultimately, on the losing side of the series.
The NHL, meanwhile, didn't get to see the Crosby it needs to see. A league, as a general rule, is strongest when its stars play their best. Crosby's struggles in this postseason, and his frustration in the final games of the Rangers series especially, will make for a compelling post-mortem on the Penguins season, but that's not the kind of thing the league aims to market.
Crosby's case is unique, though. He's not just booed because he's good. (There's a long tradition in sports of rooting against elite players.) There's something else about Crosby that brings out the worst in fans -- something that causes a grown man to wear a tutu in public in order to best express his hatred of another grown man. Crosby, those fans will tell you, is a diving, whining, dirty player, even if the realities of Crosby in 2014 don't quite match up with the reputation. But even if it's just the faux-innocent look Crosby sometimes flashes, there's enough there to rile up opposing fanbases.
It's healthy for fans of opposing teams to hate on Crosby when he's playing great. And it's fine, too, if they take joy when he's in a slump. But it's not great for the NHL when Crosby gives those fans further ammunition. The oft-replayed images of Crosby last night were ones of frustration: the spear on Moore, or even just the general look of irritation once the momentum in the series swung back toward New York. The NHL needs heroes and it needs heels. It would prefer that Crosby, the best player on the planet, be the former, not the latter.