“What’s so special about Crosby? I don’t see anything special there.”
Thus spoke Alexander Semin of the Washington Capitals in October 2008, just weeks into the NHL season. Semin told Yahoo! Sports that Crosby “does skate well, has a good head, good pass[ing], but there’s nothing else.”
Crosby’s two goal performance in Wednesday night’s Game 7 – the NHL’s marquee matchup of the decade – proved once again that the Penguins’ 21-year-old captain is not just an elite player, but a special leader.
On his first goal, the Penguins’ captain was right where fans have come to expect him to be: in the blue paint in front of the net. Crosby saw Sergei Gonchar winding up for a slapshot and intelligently angled both his stick and his skates to the post. The resulting goal wasn’t luck, it was smart hockey – another example of the minute details that Crosby gets right, and what separates him from other elite players.
Critics like to label him as “soft,” but Crosby’s goals are rarely highlight reel material. Many of them, like Game 6’s last-gasp tying goal, or Game 2’s triple-tap hat-trick, come when the Penguins need a goal the most. They come when Penguins fans are standing up in their living rooms, praying for a miracle. When there’s a mad scramble in front of the net, or the puck is fluttering through a pile of sticks, Crosby has developed a knack for putting it home.
As I said before the playoffs started, this year’s Penguins team is better equipped to win the Stanley Cup than last year’s team. They are mentally and physically tougher, and their focused resolve starts from the top. Crosby’s demeanor after Game 7’s opening goal said it all. With his smiling teammates rushing over to give him bear hugs, Sid didn’t crack a smile. He didn’t even flash his trademark bitter beer face.
Crosby was completely emotionless, save for a reserved intensity in his eyes that said, “We’ve got a long game to go, boys. Let’s finish this.”
“You look at the way Sid leads and has the fire in his eyes,” Maxime Talbot said after the game. “I think by winning that Game 7 Sid won that battle [with Alexander Ovechkin].”
If Ovechkin would have finished his early breakaway instead of being robbed by Marc-Andre Fleury, you can bet that his celebration would have involved more gyrations and woo-ing than a Pitt sorority mixer.
“Oh my Gosh, Sergei, we like, totally scored! Woooooo!”
That’s the difference between Crosby and Ovechkin at this point in their careers. Crosby has been 2 wins away from the promised land, while Ovechkin has never taken his team to Eastern Conference finals. If it even is his team. Ovechkin may be the most dominating offensive force in the game, and he may make your muscles tense every time he touches the puck, but he’s not even the captain of his own team.
While Ovechkin may win the MVP trophy, and he may have earned the respect and adoration of the national media, and yes, he may even be more technically gifted than Crosby, the fact remains – he’s not yet the leader that Crosby is, and he may never be.
Case in point: when Crosby took a gruesome high-stick to the mush in the third period, he popped back up, spat out a gob of blood, and petitioned head coach Dan Bylsma to let him stay on the ice for the ensuing power play. No whining. No theatrics. Even with the Pens holding on to a lead so comfortable that it could have been wearing a Snuggie, Crosby was still going for the throat.
Captain Spock: Inventor of the Snuggie blanket? You decide.
When he returned to the ice, he created his own breakaway by stealing the puck from Ovechkin, who was trying to do it all himself, attempting to skate through two Penguins with no defensive help behind him.
As Crosby was sailing down the ice unabated, you could faintly hear the collective sigh of 18,000 Capitals fans – the fans with the homemade signs of boldfaced vitriol not fit for this column, the Washingtonians who crooned “Cros-by Sucks” before every face off, the haters whom Sid brushes off in interviews with a shrug and a smile.
If revenge had a sound, it would most certainly be the “click-clack-clack” of Crosby’s stick against the ice as the Verizon Center echoed with stunned silence.
After Crosby shoveled the puck between goalie Jose Theodore’s legs, he dusted off the old bitter beer face – and as he stuck his bottom lip out in satisfaction, his fist slightly pumping like Mario’s used to, there was still a patch of dried blood on the side of his mouth.
As Mr. Semin watched the play unfold from the bench, maybe it finally dawned on him…
…Oh, that’s what’s so special about Crosby.