Crosby rises to occasion when team, NHL need it most
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This was exactly what the Penguins had in mind when the most significant pingpong ball in NHL history bounced their way back in the summer of 2005: Sidney Crosby would grow up in front of our eyes and become a hero in a Stanley Cup playoff game.
That vision coincided perfectly with one shared by league officials after that same pingpong ball -- and the right to draft Crosby No. 1 -- went Pittsburgh's way instead of Anaheim's. Crosby would become the NHL's most popular ambassador at a silly young age and breathe much-needed life into the sport on its grandest stage.
So it went last night at throbbing Mellon Arena.
It was hard to say who was happiest after the Penguins' 3-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 3. (I'm excluding the delirious crowd of 17,132, which was treated to a 17th consecutive win on the Lower Hill slab of ice). Was it the Penguins, who needed to show they at least could be competitive with the powerful Red Wings? Or was it the NHL officials, who practically could hear television sets being turned off across North America when Detroit won Games 1 and 2, 4-0 and 3-0, with methodical and even boring ease?
I can't speak for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who was, presumably, off toasting all things Crosby into the early Pittsburgh morning. But I can tell you what the Penguins were thinking after Crosby's two goals led to the franchise's first Cup final win since 1992, when Crosby was 4.
"I love the guy," winger Max Talbot gushed. "I'm older than him and I look up to him. What a true leader. The rest of us have no choice but to follow."
Call Crosby what you like -- Sid the Kid, The Captain, The Face of the NHL -- but know this about him: He picked up the Penguins and the league last night, carried them on his back and still found the strength and energy to turn in a remarkable performance.
It almost seemed as if it was supposed to happen that way. Evgeni Malkin could have been the star, but he wasn't. Or Marian Hossa. Or Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg or Chris Osgood.
But, no, it was Crosby.
Just following the script, eh?
"There's no doubt that you're looking for your best player to bring an A-game," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "Certainly, Sid did that tonight."
Earlier in the day, Crosby talked of the importance of scoring the first goal. "I'm not going to lie. The first one would feel nice."
As it turned out, it felt better than Crosby ever imagined.
"Finally!" he said, describing the thought that went through his mind after he got that goal late in the first period.
Crosby's body language said so much more.
"You could just see his intensity and his passion," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "You don't see him fist-pumping like that very often. He knew what this game meant to us."
When you go as long as the Penguins did without a goal -- 120 frightful minutes in those two futile games at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena and more than 17 tense minutes last night -- you start to wonder if you're ever going to score, especially against the stifling defense that the Red Wings play. But there was Crosby, pouncing on the rebound of a Hossa shot and putting it behind Osgood for a 1-0 lead. And there was Crosby again early in the second period, pouncing on a rebound of another Hossa shot and knocking it in on the power play for a 2-0 lead.
Suddenly ... series on again.
The odds remain very much against the Penguins. To win the Cup, they still must win three of the next four games against a great team, two of those games back in Detroit.
But, thanks to Crosby, at least they have a chance.
It's funny, Crosby took some heat after the two losses in Detroit. He had scored only two goals in 12 games, going back to the Ottawa series in the first round. But the critics missed the point. He never disappeared at Joe Louis Arena the way Malkin, Hossa and so many others did. He had a total of nine shots on goal in the two games. He never stopped working, never stopped trying to create for his teammates, never stopped backchecking and forechecking.
The Kid clearly takes his captaincy seriously.
Just as he takes that face of the NHL business seriously.
Scott Burnside, a national columnist for ESPN.com, chided Mario Lemieux in a piece Tuesday for hiding in seclusion and not doing more to sell the NHL during the Cup final. Burnside took a beating from Penguins fans, but he was right on with his criticism. Lemieux's public-relations stance always has been a matter of convenience -- his.
Thank goodness for the league that it has Crosby. Day after day, he faces the hockey media and promotes the sport. To paraphrase him when he was asked if he ever tires of it: Hey, I'm in a pretty good spot here. I'm in the Cup final, doing what I love. Anyway, there are worse things than talking about hockey.
And you wonder why Crosby is so loved at the NHL office?
Bettman and his minions would never admit this publicly, but they'd love to see Crosby in the spotlight for four more fabulous games just like the one last night.
I don't have to tell you the Penguins have the exact same vision.
Maybe, just maybe, both have the one player who can make it happen.
First Published May 29, 2008 12:00 am