CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Sidney Crosby has a common refrain for reaching milestones.

“It’s a nice number,” the Pittsburgh Penguins captain has said routinely.

To Crosby, the numbers have meaning but aren’t a focus. They track the passage of time, just how long he’s been at this.

The names are what he values, those attached to the numbers and belonging to some of the greatest to have ever played in the NHL.

“That’s something that I think about a whole lot,” Crosby told “I think it’s something that, when it happens or when it’s talked about, you appreciate being in that company. I think you reflect a little bit, but not a lot.

“I think that the main thing is being a fan of the game and growing up watching a lot of the players, I think it’s just cool to be in that company.”

The 36-year-old center continues to carve his place as one of the best with one milestone in the rearview and a few more straight ahead, beginning when Pittsburgh hosts the Tampa Bay Lightning at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, SN).

Leading the Penguins with 84 points (39 goals, 45 assists) in 76 games, Crosby has clinched a 19th season averaging at least a point per game to tie Wayne Gretzky for the most in League history. He has 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 12 games since going eight with just two assists from Feb. 29-March 12.

Like Crosby, Gretzky was at least a point per game in his first 19 seasons before finishing his 20th and final with 62 points (nine goals, 53 assists) in 70 games with the New York Rangers in 1998-99.

“Doesn’t surprise me. Not one bit, actually,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. “Because of the time and the work he puts into his game, just getting better in every aspect. Consistency, it’s going to be there every single year. Not surprised.”

Crosby has 1,586 points (589 goals, 997 assists) in 1,266 games, four points behind Phil Esposito (1,590 points; 717 goals, 873 assists) for 10th all-time. Three more assists would make him the 14th player in NHL history to hit 1,000. He needs 11 goals to become the 21st with 600.

That hasn’t distracted from what has been a volatile season for the Penguins (35-30-11), who are 5-0-2 on a seven-game point streak to pull within two points of the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference following a 4-1 win at the Washington Capitals on Thursday.

The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders each have 83 points; the Flyers are in third place in the Metropolitan Division and the Islanders hold the second wild card (Philadelphia has three more regulation wins). Washington and the Detroit Red Wings each have 82 points and a game in hand on the Penguins, with 81 points, Islanders and Flyers in the final push toward punching tickets to the postseason. 

As Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan has said, nobody feels it more than Crosby.

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“I just think he has such an insatiable appetite for winning,” Sullivan said. “He has such an insatiable appetite for being the best and he’s been willing to put the work in to make that happen. I think that’s an important aspect that defines his legacy. That’s what makes him unique, in a lot of ways, from others.

“I think it’s hard for me not to acknowledge that and point to that when we talk about all of the milestones and the legacy that he’s built at this point. I really think that what makes him unique amongst any player that I’ve certainly ever been around is just his passion and drive to want to be the best.”

That impression is felt beyond Pittsburgh.

“I know Sidney Crosby,” Columbus Blue Jackets coach Pascal Vincent said after a 3-2 loss to the Penguins on March 28, when Crosby had two assists. “I know how he trains in the summer. His ability to push himself, to be uncomfortable. That’s how he gets better.

“He has a guy he’s mentoring, a guy that’s not bad too, in [Colorado Avalanche center Nathan] MacKinnon. Those two guys train together. And you see it in games. Those guys are just elite. There’s a reason for it. It’s not only pure talent. There are a lot of guys with pure talent. Those guys have found a way to push themselves. You’ve seen the results with their careers.”

Crosby has long taken on the role of mentor in Pittsburgh, one that has become more prominent late this season with prospects being recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.

Forward Sam Poulin, who was recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League on Thursday, reflected on being selected with the No. 21 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

“I remember going out of Rogers [Arena] in Vancouver,” Poulin said. “I was coming out of the arena with my dad and my brother. I just looked at my phone. Saw that Sid reached out. That was awesome.”

Poulin’s case isn’t unique. Crosby has always contacted new players, whether drafted, signed in free agency or acquired in a trade.

It’s what has built a culture synonymous with his nearly 17 years as Penguins captain, Sullivan said.

“I think our locker room, when you look at some of the stature of the players, on the surface, it can be an intimidating locker room for a young player to walk into,” Sullivan said. “But I think those feelings go away very quickly because all of our guys, and I think Sid takes the lead on this, all of our guys make young players, or new players, that come into our locker room feel welcome and a big part of it.

“It’s important that everyone feels valued, everyone feels respected and everyone feels included. I think Sid takes the lead on that for us.”

Crosby was once that young player, welcomed by Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux after being selected No. 1 overall at 17 years old in the 2005 NHL Draft.

Entering with the highest of expectations, there was no guarantee Crosby would win the Stanley Cup three times (2009, 2016, 2017). Same goes for the Hart Trophy, voted as NHL MVP (2007, 2014), the Art Ross Trophy as scoring leader (2007, 2014), the Rocket Richard Trophy as goals leader (2010, 2017) and the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs (2016, 2017) twice each.

As a kid, he didn’t know his name would become a natural fit alongside those of Gretzky and Lemieux. Or that he would be named one of the NHL's 100 Greatest Players on the occasion of the League's centennial in 2017.

Actually, he’s glad to have been blissfully unaware.

“I probably wouldn’t be here,” Crosby said. “I think that you work and you’re trying to make the NHL. Once you get here, you’re trying to win every night. I think the goal has always been, the dream has always been, to play in the NHL. I still am thankful for that and grateful for that.

“I try to make the most of it every day and work as hard as I can. Wherever that puts me, that puts me. I love playing. I love competing and trying to win games.”