How many 21-year-olds in the world can claim to be the best in their profession? Actually, how many 21-year-olds are already working in a profession, let alone being the best at what they do?
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby
is staking his claim as the world’s best hockey player at the young age of 21. His play and poise at such a young age has impressed his peers, including 16-year NHL veteran and linemate Bill Guerin
"I didn’t realize just how much he does it on a nightly basis. For a young guy to have that sort of consistency, to have that sort of focus is really impressive," Guerin said. "I know as a young player myself, the consistency part of the game was probably the hardest to get by. He already has that."
The 38-year-old Guerin has been equally amazed by Crosby’s leadership. Crosby became the youngest captain in NHL history at 19, and is the youngest captain to lead his team to the Stanley Cup Final at 20.
"He’s in that position being the captain of the team," Guerin said. "He provides us with a ton of leadership every night. He’s not always saying stuff in the locker room. It’s on the ice, that’s where he does his talking."
On the ice, Crosby has been clutch for the Penguins this postseason. He currently leads the NHL in points (21), goals (12) and power-play goals (5). And he saved his best performance for the biggest stage, with two goals and an assist in the decisive Game 7 showdown with the Washington Capitals
"He’s always been a tremendous leader in good and bad times. Right now, when he needs to be at his best, he is at his best," Maxime Talbot
said. "For a fan, you saw him play against Washington, which was an unbelievable battle, a huge challenge for him, and he definitely stepped up."
"He seems to crank it up another notch," Guerin said. "You have to make sure you don’t get caught just watching him. You try to get up there with him. He definitely has another gear. He makes things happen one way or another. It’s not just him passing the puck. He just makes things happen with the puck or without the puck."
Crosby is well known as a world-class playmaker. In fact, he is arguably the best set-up man in the league (along with teammate Evgeni Malkin
). But for as much attention that is paid to Crosby making plays, he is one of the most underrated players in the League at finishing plays.
In his four NHL seasons, Crosby has posted 39, 36, 24 and 33 goals – his 24 goals occurred in a season in which he played only 53 games due to injury. And, as noted above, Crosby currently all postseason performers in goals and power-play goals in 13 games (more than Washington’s Alex Ovechkin
, the consensus top NHL sniper).
So while Crosby is receiving more attention now for his goal scoring, the Nova Scotia native claims he hasn’t really altered his game.
"I haven’t changed a whole lot," Crosby said. "I think I’ve played a little bit better. As a team, we’ve played better as well. I think everybody benefits from that. For me, I don’t think I’ve changed a whole lot. I’ve tried to improve my game a little bit more and make sure I was better."
Crosby has 10 goals in his last eight games, including his first career playoff hat trick in Game 2 against the Capitals. Crosby has followed an old NHL formula for scoring in the postseason – namely going to the net. The majority of his playoff goals have been scored within 10 feet of the cage.
"I think in general, that’s where you score a lot of goals in the playoffs because it is so tight," Crosby said. "You’re not going to be able to beat guys one-on-one as much and get odd-man rushes. I think it’s pretty clear to everyone that’s where you’ll see a lot of pucks, especially at this time of year."
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma
believes that all of Crosby’s success and accomplishments derive from his relentless work ethic and competitive spirit.
"For Sid to raise his game and get 12 goals is remarkable to watch and a credit to the way he approaches the game and how he works," he said.
"Whether it's an optional or regular practice in the regular season after Game 72, if you come out and don’t execute in practice, he gets perturbed and upset. He has a problem with that. That type of attention to detail and wanting to always be on is something that is ingrained in him."
Bylsma recalled a moment during the postseason when a Pittsburgh shot missed the net, bounced off the backboards and came to Crosby on the other side. The captain didn’t score on that opportunity.
"The next day he went out and started shooting pucks off the backboards to try and replicate that bounce that he might get on a wide shot on a power play," Bylsma said. "He wanted to work on that situation, gathering the puck and trying to score from a bad angle shot at the net. He worked on it for a good six, seven minutes before practice all by himself.
"As a coach, I watched it happen and thought, ‘He missed an opportunity, thought about last night, probably lost some sleep over it, now he comes to the rink early before everyone else and is trying to replicate a situation that may happen once every fifth or sixth game.’ He’s trying to hone his skill in that situation."
"When things are tough you have to work harder," he said. "You work hard in practice. You stay out there longer and really try to find what you need to work on. It’s game-to-game. It’s not something that you look back and say I have to work on this. You just get more detailed but that’s basically it."
But for all of his accolades and accomplishments, Crosby hasn’t lost focus of his and the team’s ultimate goal – the Stanley Cup.
"I don’t think about (personal accomplishments)," he said. "We’re halfway to where we want to be. That’s the reality. There’s a lot of work left. It doesn’t change from year to year. This is why you play, for this time of year. It’s a tough time but the time you want to be a part of."
So how does the best player in the world play even better in the postseason? Maybe it’s his natural talent, tireless work ethic, competitive drive, attention to detail or possibly all of the above. Whatever the reason, there is no denying that Crosby has an uncanny ability to raise his already mountainous level of play. And it’s a pleasure to watch.
"As a sports fan you see the media write about different athletes in different sports," Bylsma said. "You wonder how it’s possible to play at an extremely high level in the regular season and then somehow (in the playoffs) find a different level and shine when the spotlight is on."
And did we mention that he’s still only 21 years old?
Notes: After having Thursday and Friday off, the Penguins returned to practice Saturday morning. "We took two days of rest because we played 13 games of hockey and battled hard," Bylsma said. "It was a chance for us to regroup and re-energize, get some rest for bumps and bruises." … Defenseman Sergei Gonchar
was given the day off for rest. "He sustained an injury and had to sit out a couple of games," Bylsma said. "He played in Game 7 but this is a situation where rest is better than taxing the injury further. That’s what we did (Saturday). We’ll evaluate him again (Sunday)."