Cam Cole | June 7, 2016 1:33 PM ET
Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby centers the puck past San Jose Sharks' Joel Ward (42) as Sharks goalie Martin Jones (31), defends during the first period in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final series Monday, May 30, 2016, in Pittsburgh. (Keith Srakocic/AP)
PITTSBURGH — Ryan Whitney, the retired former Pittsburgh defenceman, was previewing the Stanley Cup final — albeit two games into it — with another ex-Penguin, NHL journeyman Mike Rupp.
This was on the Players’ Tribune, the athletes-only online forum founded a couple of years ago by Derek Jeter, and Whitney and Rupp were having fun, but the topic kept returning to Sidney Crosby.
There, the discussion turned from frivolous to reverent.
“I’m happy for Sid,” Whitney said, “because he’s reminding everybody what a once-in-a-generation talent he is. He’s doing what people gave (Jonathan) Toews a lot of credit for in Chicago, and rightfully so. He’s inspiring his teammates with how hard he’s playing.”
The Toews comparison is a good one. For years — at least, before Connor McDavid came along, anyway, and moved the debate forward a decade — fans and media people would argue about which player they’d take if they wanted to start a team from scratch. Who’d be the centerpiece of the build: Crosby? Toews?
But the analogy is particularly useful right now, as voters ponder who might win the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Penguins manage to finish off the San Jose Sharks on Thursday in Pittsburgh.
In 2010, Toews won the Smythe without scoring a goal in the final and with just three assists in the Blackhawks’ six-game victory over Philadelphia. Crosby has no goals and only two assists in the four games against the Sharks.
And yet, in the realm that defines him as he closes in on age 29 — as a leader of men, working so hard at such high speed that his teammates (the transformed Phil Kessel perhaps Exhibit A) would be embarrassed not to give the same level of effort — he has been the most important player on his team.
Matt Murray, the rookie goalie, has been very good and, at times, better than good. Kessel has been a revelation.
But it all begins with Crosby, who won the Stanley Cup as a 21-year-old and has never been back to the show since.
His will to win, at this point of his career, is palpable.
Early in the final, Sharks’ Joe Thornton raked him over the head with his stick, knocking his helmet off. Crosby didn’t give him the satisfaction of acknowledging that mugging, or the cross-checks, or the interference penalty Sharks’ Marc-Edouard Vlasic took in Game 4 for shoving Crosby into an open door to the bench. He is on a mission.
Has he cheated on faceoffs, as Sharks’ Logan Couture peevishly noted after Game 2? Sure he has. So does every centre, including Couture himself.
In hockey, where especially during playoffs the rules are, shall we say, “fluid,” the old expression really is true: “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Crosby is trying, relentlessly.
In Game 2, when rookie Conor Sheary scored the overtime winner, Crosby choreographed the whole play, from where the puck would go off the faceoff (to Kris Letang) to where Sheary would position himself in a soft spot in the slot to take the relay from Letang.
“I call 25 faceoffs a game. So I got 24 wrong tonight. Those guys deserve a lot more credit than me,” Crosby said later, but television showed the interactions with Letang and Sheary in living colour, just as it has shown a much more animated Crosby conversing (not always good-naturedly) with linemate Patrik Hornqvist on the bench.
Crosby, though he came into the league touted as the next Great One, is really the anti-Gretzky in many respects. He is not defined by statistics, he doesn’t just appear in the middle of a play as if spirited there by God; he outworks the opposition for his scoring chances and to make room for his linemates. He has sacrificed a good deal of offence to play the full rink.
He plays it at warp speed, but lots of players skate fast. What he achieves with the puck, at that speed, is the dazzling part. That he hasn’t scored yet against the Sharks is actually a measure of the respect they have for him. He’s not getting an uncontested second or an inch of space that he doesn’t earn through determination.
“You can see it in his face. He knows how hard it is to get to where they’re at right now. And he’s playing out of his mind,” Whitney said, in the chat with Rupp.
“He’s got a side to him that I think you have to be born with. He’s like MJ (Michael Jordan). They wanna stomp on your throat. That’s what makes them great.”
Crosby wants that, all right, but he wants it for his team, from the rookie winger, Sheary, on his line to the third-pairing defenceman, Ian Cole, who scored his first-ever playoff goal for the game-winner Monday night.
He will lead, but they must follow, including his admonition that the series isn’t over yet.
“You’ve got to understand that it’s going to take our best, and we’re going to see their absolute best,” Crosby cautioned Monday.
“We’ve had a great approach all playoff long, making sure we’re staying in the moment here. That will be important, now more than ever.”
Sid will be dialed in. That much we know.