Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby races up-ice during National Hockey League game against the Canadiens in Montreal Tuesday November 18, 2014.
John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette
The Pittsburgh Penguins superstar has grown up before our eyes in this city and throughout the hockey universe, first gliding onto Montreal’s NHL rink at the age of 18 years and five months.
Crosby was a man-child back on Jan. 3, 2006, when he skated to centre ice, ready to take the game’s opening faceoff against Canadiens captain Saku Koivu. It was his second career game against the Habs, having scored once two months earlier in a 3-2 Penguins victory in Pittsburgh.
But as the Bell Centre buzzed for the start of that January game, referee Don Koharski held up the start for a moment. Koharski, a native of Dartmouth, N.S., knew of Crosby’s starry reputation and celestial potential as the youngster touched down in the NHL, and the veteran official wasn’t going to let this occasion go without a souvenir.
Canadiens photographer Bob Fisher stood in the penalty box, the door open with his lens focused, as Koharski called Crosby near.
“I went to Sid and said, ‘C’mere. See that guy over there in the box with the camera? He wants to take a picture of the two legends from Nova Scotia,’ ” Koharski later told me, laughing at the memory.
“Sid (from Cole Harbour, N.S.) just looked at me and said, ‘Yeah? Well, where’s the other one?’ ”
Not a bad line for an NHL greybeard, no less a kid who was barely 18 and probably hadn’t yet started shaving.
As he did that first game, when his two goals lifted Pittsburgh to a 6-4 victory, Crosby left the Bell Centre Tuesday night a winner; his streaking Penguins, 10-1-0 in their last 11, pounded out a clinical 4-0 triumph to snap, crackle and pop the Canadiens’ six-game win streak.
It was Crosby’s 26th career regular-season game against the Habs (his 33rd including seven 2010 Eastern Conference semifinal games), and he now shows a record of 15-9-2.
Arguably the greatest player in the world — disciples of Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos will argue that to the death — Crosby found the net behind Habs goalie Carey Price on a back-breaking power-play with 31 seconds left in the second period, giving him 16 goals and 20 assists in his 26 games against Montreal.
It also broke his own eight-game goal-less stretch, during which he earned 11 assists.
“The chances have been there, whether creating them or having a couple myself,” Crosby said before the game. “Eventually, you trust that those go in sometimes.”
Only three times in regular-season play has Crosby been held off the scoresheet; his most prolific game saw him score three on home ice on Oct. 28, 2009, in a 6-1 win.
The Canadiens managed to shut him down during that memorable 2010 playoff series, holding him without a point in four games and allowing him just a single goal.
But the threat is forever there, and seeing Crosby on Bell Centre ice is always a treat for any fan of hockey brilliance, even if he’s not wearing the jersey of your preferred team.
“I get excited. It definitely doesn’t get old coming here, that’s for sure,” Crosby said Tuesday after his team’s morning skate.
“It’s a great place to play, the way the fans get into it, the emotion of the game. Obviously, there’s a little more history with having played them in the playoffs (and) with their team playing the way it is, too, if it was possible to kind of add any more, I think it does. … The atmosphere here is pretty special.”
Crosby’s starting-lineup introduction was gently booed by Canadiens fans. But he didn’t get a fraction of what falls on Boston’s Bruins’ Milan Lucic, abuse that rains down as a bitter venom. No, Sid the Erstwhile Kid is heckled almost respectfully, simply for being so damned good in a Penguins uniform.
Twice the winner of the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top point-scorer and twice the recipient of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player, Crosby remains a captivating, compelling, necessary figure in the game.
He’s a drawing card wherever he goes, and it’s his delicious skill and leadership that has the Penguins atop the Metropolitan Division.
Sadly mistaken were those who expected this team to stumble out of the gate after a summer of upheaval, general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma replaced by Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston who, respectively, arrived from the Carolina Hurricanes and the major-junior Portland Winterhawks.
Nearly a dozen players from the 2013-14 club departed, a half-dozen coming in.
“We wanted to be patient with the new coaching staff,” Crosby said. “With so many new faces, you want be focused and work hard but you knew it may take time. You have to evaluate everything based on that but guys were pretty eager and adjusted quick and the coaching staff was pretty clear on how we wanted to play. Everyone deserves a lot of credit for making it pretty smooth.
“You can’t go in with the mentality that it’s going to take 15 games (to hit stride). You can’t accept that. You have to find a way to fast-track that.”
Johnston was an associate coach with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks before arriving with the Penguins from Portland, his NHL work a valuable apprenticeship for his current duties.
“My priority was to get to know the players,” he said. “We’ve got some great athletes here, world-class players. You’re trying to mould their identity as a team and as a group.”
Like every other hockey observer, Johnston has his OMG, head-shaking moments as he watches Crosby spin his magic.
“We’re fortunate in that we get to see him every day in practice,” he said, smiling. “A lot of that happens in practice because of how hard he practises every day, and how much he works at his game.
“Kids and younger players, even players in junior that I coached before, will watch Sidney play the games. If you could ever see him in practice — his repetition, his habit, his detail is outstanding.
“That’s why you see the things you do in the game.”
Which have amazed us all since a goofy Bell Centre faceoff in 2006, a lifetime ago and yet, a puck-drop that seems like almost yesterday.