A day after his team opened the Stanley Cup Final by beating the San Jose Sharks at home, first-year Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan scheduled an optional skate, and all but six players opted to take the day off. And why not? In less than seven weeks, the Penguins had played 19 grinding playoff games, five in overtime.
One of the players who did practice that day was Sidney Crosby, the team’s captain. He worked with players who were likely to be healthy scratches from the lineup for Game 2, staying longer to work on his shot from the slot and polish his face-off skills. After the practice, Sullivan was asked about Crosby’s practice habits, and Sullivan, not one to gush, poured on the praise.
“I don’t think he’s as good as he is by accident,” Sullivan said at a news conference. “As long as I’ve been associated with this league, I don’t know that I’ve been around a player that 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,” Sullivan said. “There’s a lot of talented guys out there. But I think his work ethic allows him to be the player that he is. It’s impressive. 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.”
Even at 28, Crosby still looks like a hockey player who has been called “The Kid.” He has grown a playoff beard, as is custom, but his has blossomed in clumps. He can’t help that his voice is still scratchy, even whiny at times. He pulls on a black baseball cap for interviews, making his hazel eyes appear bigger, dewier. His many anti-fans call him “Cindy Crysby.”
Many of these people celebrate his shortcomings – there is a Facebook page, I Hate Sidney Crosby, complete with an illustration of Crosby crying – but the Penguins are closing in on their first Stanley Cup in seven years. The San Jose Sharks, trailing in the series, 3-1, need to win three games in a row to prevent the Pens from hoisting the Cup.
Crosby and Alex Ovechkin don’t play the same position on the ice, and they don’t really have the same skill sets, but they have always been tied to each other because a lockout forced the cancellation of the 2004-5 National Hockey League season, so they were two No1 draft choices who came into the league at exactly the same time.
Crosby, 28, has scored 338 goals in 707 regular-season games, with two Hart Trophies as the league’s most valuable player, compared with 525 goals in 839 games for Ovechkin, 30, who has won the Hart Trophy three times and powered the Washington Capitals to the league’s best regular-season record.
Ovechkin has a searing slapshot, throws his 239lbs around with gusto, is fun to watch, and, as the Capitals’ captain, is playing within the team construct. But he has yet to get past two rounds in the Stanley Cup playoffs in his 11-year career.
The Capitals were so good during the regular season that this appeared to be the season that Ovechkin would finally make his run to the Cup. Although Sullivan is the second coach the Penguins have had this year, and Pittsburgh has used two different goaltenders in the playoffs, the Penguins are playing almost a month after vanquishing Washington in six games.
Crosby has all of six goals in 22 playoff games – none against the Caps. Bryan Rust, a 24-year-old forward who has only five goals in 55 NHL regular-season games, also has six playoff goals for the Penguins. Either Phil Kessel, the re-energized forward with 10 goals, or Matt Murray, the gangly 22-year-old goaltender, could win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
But so could Crosby, and, whether you like him (which is the case in Pittsburgh) or not (which is the case in 29 other NHL cities), it will be another testament to the game he plays. Jim Rutherford, the Pittsburgh general manager, made several moves to generate a winner – naming Sullivan as coach, for one, and acquiring speedy winger Carl Hagelin, for another.
But Crosby is the constant. Only five players remain from the Pittsburgh team that won the Cup in 2009: Crosby, center Evgeni Malkin, defenseman Kris Letang, forward Chris Kunitz and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Of those five players, only Crosby and Kunitz have played in at least 100 of the Penguins’ 104 games this season.
He still draws barbs. After Pittsburgh won Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, San Jose center Logan Couture claimed Crosby cheated on face-offs, which are supposed to follow a strict protocol, with the defending center putting his stick on the ice first. Crosby had won 17 of 24 faceoffs, so his extra work at that aforementioned optional practice might have helped.
“I didn’t expect that one,” Crosby said of Couture’s claim. “But I have one good game in the faceoff circle, and all of a sudden I’m cheating on faceoffs. Probably not a coincidence there.
“We’re all doing the same thing in the faceoff circle. I don’t think anybody has found a habit or tendency that someone else doesn’t do. We all do the same things. I don’t know what to say, really.”
Couture would soften his stance, saying that he cheated on faceoffs – and so did everybody else. When asked if he would use Couture’s claim as motivation, Crosby smiled and said, “I don’t need any more fuel. At this stage, I think we’re all motivated by the end result. I don’t need any extra motivation. I don’t think anybody needs to say anything to start that.”
Crosby has been credited with 30 hits and has blocked 11 shots in the playoffs, so it is not as if he shies from contact. Some of Crosby’s teammates have, in a sense, eclipsed him this spring because they were not expected to contribute. But the Penguins still have Crosby as their driving force. It might be hard for non-Penguins fans to do, but it will probably soon be time to give the guy a little credit.
This article was written by Dave Caldwell, for theguardian.com on Thursday 9th June 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010