SAN JOSE, Calif. – In hindsight it’s hard to believe how much doubt the greatest player of his generation has had to contend with.
Even during a playoff run that ended with him lifting the Stanley Cup and accepting the Conn Smythe Trophy, there were plenty who questioned Sidney Crosby.
Once and for all we know his place. With plenty of runway left on a Hall of Fame career, he’s going down as the best of the bunch in the NHL’s initial salary cap era. Everything is gravy from here.
“I think it places him up there with the greats of the game of all time,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Sunday. “He’s that good in my mind. … I could tell as we went through this post-season that he knew that our team had something special.
“He was going to will this thing.”
That’s what the greats always do.
After San Jose delayed the Penguins celebration by stealing a Game 5 win earlier this week, Crosby was determined to see the Stanley Cup Final end here. In private, he told a few people close to him that he was going into “beast mode” at SAP Center.
Talk about calling your shot. He finished with a team-high 10 shot attempts and went 13-4 in the faceoff circle. He earned the primary assist on Kris Letang’s game-winner and blocked a shot before feeding Patric Hornqvist for the empty-netter that sealed a 3-1 win.
“Beast mode, baby,” Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff told Sportsnet. “He’s a winner, he’s won everything. We just followed him. He told me before Game 6 that he was going beast mode, and he went beast mode.
“He was dialled in. He wanted it.”
It ended up being the kind of spring that will leave an indelible mark on the history of the sport.
The biggest difference between Crosby and his contemporaries is that all of this has been expected of him since he was a kid growing up on Hannebury Drive in Cole Harbour, N.S.
For most, winning a Stanley Cup or a scoring title would amount to a massive career-defining accomplishment. For him it only brought on questions about when the next one was coming – questions that were clouded in uncertainty when he was limited to just 69 games over a two-year period because of concussions.
That his second Stanley Cup arrived seven years to the day after his first is the kind of thing most would brush away as coincidence. Not the heavily superstitious Crosby, who spent the last eight weeks acting as if this was all pre-ordained.
Bill Guerin was his teammate on the 2009 championship team and is the Penguins assistant general manager now. He cites the captain’s quietly authoritative demeanour as the biggest evolution he’s seen in Crosby over the year.
“When guys like him, guys like (Evgeni Malkin), walk into a room and they’re calm and they’re focused everybody else sees that and feeds off it,” said Guerin. “Winning another one? It means a lot for Sid.
“It means the first one definitely wasn’t a fluke and he did this one as a veteran.”
The core of this team – which includes Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Chris Kunitz, Marc-Andre Fleury and Pascal Dupuis – has now matched the Lemieux/Jagr glory days with two championships.
“I think it’s important for great players like Sid and Malkin to have two,” said Lemieux, the Penguins co-owner. “It’s so hard to win it year after year. For them to win it again … hopefully there are a few more for them.
“They are amazing players, the top two or three in the world, and I’m happy for both of them. They showed a lot throughout the playoffs.”
They were hardly alone, of course.
Phil Kessel led the team in scoring during these playoffs and also garnered heavy Conn Smythe consideration. Matt Murray, the 22-year-old goalie, was pressed into action with Fleury out injured and improbably delivered 15 playoff victories.
Hornqvist and Nick Bonino both delivered some big moments, as did rookies Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary. An anonymous blue line was surprisingly solid, especially after Trevor Daley was lost during the Eastern Conference final to a broken ankle.
Virtually all of the criticism directed at Crosby focused on his production. He finished tied for sixth in playoff scoring with 19 points.
Internally, the Penguins were thrilled with how he and Malkin gladly accepted less skilled wingers because it allowed them to spread their offensive weapons throughout the lineup. No team was able to handle their speed and depth – not the Rangers, Capitals, Lightning or Sharks.
When it came to Crosby, specifically, the sharp details of his game drew high praise.
“He does things quietly,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “He’s really a great leader. Everybody judges Sid on his points and how many goals he gets and things like that, but he’s really an all-around player. … He’s a quiet leader, but a really good one.”
His teammates lovingly refer to him as the “best grinder in the world.”
It’s a moniker that recognizes a lunch-bucket work ethic that matches his God-given ability. It’s ultimately what sets him apart.
There isn’t always flash to No. 87, but there is plenty of polish. The way he works his edges and protects the puck. The unmatched vision and playmaking ability.
And, now, the trophy case.
He’s won plenty for both club and country. He’s claimed virtually every individual achievement available to him by the age of 28. He’s already one of the greats.
This was a special Stanley Cup win – one that took an unthinkable amount of time to arrive for Crosby and the Penguins. Back at Joe Louis Arena on June 12, 2009 we all thought it would happen every spring. That’s why Crosby says he appreciated this one so much more.
Among those celebrating with him at SAP Center was his father, Troy, and mother, Trina. After the concussions and playoff disappointments of the last seven years, they wondered if they’d ever have another night like this one.
“I asked my wife, `Are we ever going to see the Stanley Cup again?’” said Troy Crosby. “Because the first time it goes through so fast. You take it for granted, you don’t appreciate it. I had wished we took more time with the Stanley Cup that day (in 2009). I said, ‘I’ll probably never see it again.’
“I wondered. Today counting down the clock I said, ‘We’re going to see it again.’ It’s awesome. It’s really awesome.”
Just like his son.