PITTSBURGH -- It seems almost crazy now to think that, as recently as last fall, people were suggesting Sidney Crosby was no longer a superstar.
His fellow players around the league certainly knew better.
"At the beginning of the season, he probably didn't get off to his best start," said fellow Hart Trophy nominee Patrick Kane on the phone Tuesday. "He faced adversity and had people questioning him. But the way he answered the bell, that was impressive.''
Indeed, Crosby led the NHL in points, with 66 (30-36) in the 52 games from mid-December on, finishing third in the league scoring race that was won by Kane. Mind you, the Chicago Blackhawks star, who shares the same agent as Crosby, was getting a little anxious about the scoring derby as No. 87 kept pouring it on.
"I texted Pat Brisson one time and was like, 'Tell Sid to slow down here, I'd like to win a [scoring] title here myself.' He was just on fire," said Kane, chucking.
Which is why, when Crosby's lack of offensive productivity was called into question again early in the playoffs during the Penguins' series with theWashington Capitals, Kane was sure it was only a matter of time until he got going again.
"I thought he was absolutely dominant in Game 7 against Tampa Bay," Kane said. "And he looked really fast and possessed [in Game 1 of the Cup finals], just controlling the puck and controlling the game. He got an assist, but he probably could have had five or six points with some of the plays he was making out there. As a fan, it's fun to watch.''
And, Kane added, Crosby is clearly sacrificing personal offense in the playoffs in the name of winning.
"What's fun to watch about him right now, as an offensive player, as a scorer, you have to have that type of impact on the game where you're scoring every game and creating chances," Kane said. "But for the good of his team, he's playing a complete game. It's not just offensive and just trying to pick up points."
"He's still an effective player offensively but it seems like it's not his main focus right now," Kane continued.
"He just wants to win.''
Crosby's two-way game remains an underrated part of his tool box -- except on his own team, where coach Mike Sullivan uses him often as a shutdown player on the opposing team's top offensive threat.
There are games, like several in the Washington series, in which Crosby doesn't pick up a point. But if you're watching closely, you see that he's had an exceptional night in every other aspect.
When things were tough at the start of the season, when people were piling on, when Crosby's confidence was being challenged, his father told him he'd come out of it stronger because of it.
"I told Sidney then that he would be a better player for getting through that adversity, and I think he is for it," Troy Crosby said Tuesday, while watching his son skate during an optional practice. "I'm proud of him, proud of how he fought through that."
No question, No. 87 now says, that adversity -- as unpleasant as it was then -- has made him a better player today.
"You need to go through those things sometimes, to learn and take lessons from," the Penguins captain said Tuesday. "That's the great thing. You go through different experiences and you think you've grown and gotten better. But that's the most important thing, to keep learning. That's what makes it fun, to be honest. You'd rather not go through those situations, but when you do, you have to try to find ways to make good out of them somehow.''
That outstanding overall game was on display -- at both ends of the ice -- again in Game 1 of the Cup finals against the San Jose Sharks. Game 2 is Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET.
Crosby was simply playing on a different level than any player on either team.
"Sidney Crosby does everything well," said Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who has matched up against Crosby practically every time the two have played each other at different levels, on the eve of the Cup finals. "In the first three rounds, put all their top players together and that would be Crosby. It's going to be a lot harder, but a lot more fun."
Fellow star Joe Thornton got an up-close look at Crosby when they were teammates on Canada's 2010 Olympic squad, the one for which Crosby scored the Golden Goal in overtime to break the hearts of Team USA.
"He's a tremendous guy, super guy to be around,'' Thornton said. "He's one of the best to ever play, as far as I'm concerned -- his speed, the way he sees the game. He's very elite. Watching him firsthand as a teammate in 2010, I remember just saying, 'This guy's the real deal. He's a phenom.'"
It's not just God-given talent, though. What has separated Crosby from the pack throughout the years is his unrelenting work ethic. He's constantly thinking about ways to improve his game.
"I don't think he's as good as he is by accident," said Sullivan, who helped spark Crosby's game when he took over as Pittsburgh's coach in December. "As long as I've been associated with this league, I don't know that I've been around a player who has the same work ethic as Sid does as far as that insatiable appetite to just try to get better and be the best. I think that's why he's as good as he is.
"Everybody sees his talent. There's a lot of talented guys out there. But I think his work ethic allows him to be the player that he is. I think it also sets a standard for our team, when your captain and your top player brings a work ethic to the rink every day like he does. He certainly makes my job as the head coach a lot easier, as far as demanding the type of standard we need to in order to be successful.''
Wait, wasn't Crosby washed up seven months ago? Never mind.