Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby
is made for the stage he will once again occupy beginning Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio).
The biggest stage -- the Stanley Cup Final -- is usually about the biggest players. And there is nobody bigger than Crosby, who this spring has willed his team to a second-straight Final with a postseason for the ages. His 28 points are tied -- with teammate Evgeni Malkin
-- for the Stanley Cup Playoff scoring lead. That total, in 17 games, is nine points better than anybody on the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh's opponent in this rematch of last year's Final.
Just how big is Crosby in NHL circles?
Detroit coach Mike Babcock joked at Friday's media day at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center that he has seen so much of Crosby in NHL commercials that he wondered if his team really won the Stanley Cup last June.
, I mean, you can't turn on any TV that covers hockey without seeing him," Babcock said, breaking into one of his more sly smiles. "Actually, when I watch the commercials from last year, I think they won, not us. So I have to check every once in a while to get that figured out."
To set the record straight, the Red Wings did win in 2008, taking a two-games-to-none lead against the awestruck Penguins and riding that to a six-game triumph.
It was an experience that did not sit well with Crosby, a champion at every level he has played. The memory of watching the Red Wings celebrate their title -- on his home ice at Mellon Arena, no less -- stayed with him all summer. The vision of Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom -- and not Crosby, the captain of the Penguins -- taking the Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has driven Crosby to be an even better player this season.
"Yeah, it was tough," Crosby said Friday of last year's Final loss. "It's difficult for everyone. You dream your whole life about being in that position and you work so hard, and right at that moment you never know if you're going to get another chance. I don't think anybody took it well."
But few took it as hard as Crosby, who turned the hurt into a positive, working tirelessly on those areas -- faceoffs and defense, to name two -- that he believed he needed to improve on to best help his team win a title.
The Red Wings know they will get a new-and-improved Crosby when the Final starts with Saturday night's Game 1 at Joe Louis Arena. They will not see the player who did not register a point until the third game of the Final and looked to be severely hobbled at times because of the wear and tear of the season.
They expect a fresh Crosby, which means a game-changing Crosby.
"I think he has the complete package," said Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg, who figures to spend a lot of his time during the series trying to keep Crosby from lighting up the scoreboard. "He's scoring goals and making plays. He's working hard both on and off the ice. He's their leader. One thing this year, you know, he's scoring a lot more goals than last year."
Brad Stuart will be part of a four-man defensive unit that will try to contain Crosby, who plays first-line center and also sees some time as the fourth-line pivot in the 11-forward alignment Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma has employed for the past seven games.
"I'd say he's figured out a few things," Stuart told NHL.com. "I'm not going to say that he wasn't last year; but it seems to me like he is a little more physical, not only in the offensive, but his own zone. I think he is competing better on faceoffs and all those things. He's still a young kid and figuring all these things out, but he's taken a step forward, I think."
Crosby's teammates agree with Stuart's assessment. They believe that their 21-year-old captain has made huge strides this season and is a big part of the reason that they are in the Final for a second-straight year.
Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang
says Crosby has been better for the past few months because Bylsma, an in-season replacement for Michel Therrien, has cut down on Crosby's minutes a little bit as he urges the entire team to play a more up-tempo, attacking style than they did last year under Therrien.
"When you are fresher, you always have more success," Letang told NHL.com. "I've been watching him for so long. I played against him in junior and I played with him in the NHL and I don't know, he's always going to the dirty areas, he always going to the net. He's always a guy that will sacrifice his body."
And now, he will get a chance to put his work ethic -- sometimes the most underappreciated facet of Crosby's game -- back on display on the biggest stage. This time, he hopes the outcome is different; but, for now, he is just savoring the opportunity to go for the ride again.
"We feel pretty fortunate to get a second chance here the following year," Crosby said.
Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor