After the 7th Game, God rested.
This is most assuredly the attitude felt by Pittsburg Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby. Crosby and the rest of the Penguins are not even seventy two hours removed from a game seven thrashing at the hands of the Montreal Canadians. Much like the Washington Capitals in the previous series, the Penguins were left wondering what happened. This point must prove especially true for Crosby, who through virtually no fault of his own will undoubtedly wonder what could have been.
For those who have been hiding under a rock, or more importantly haven’t followed Crosby’s entire career, the player nicknamed “Sid the Kid” has a veteran’s laundry list of accomplishments. At just sixteen Crosby was part of a Canadian team that won the 2005 World Junior Championships, A moment which Crosby calls “the greatest hockey moment of my life.” Like every team he’s been on Crosby was the centerpiece, but, the victory pales in comparison would accomplish in his professional career.
Crosby’s last calendar year has been the pinnacle of success in hockey. Crosby led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup victory over the Detroit Red Wings in Seven games. Crosby did not win the Hart Trophy given to the leagues most valuable player in the regular season. Instead the award went to Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who were defeated by Crosby and the Penguins in the seventh game of the eastern conference semi-finals. After the victory over Detroit, the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs went instead to Crosby’s teammate, Evgeni Malkin. Yet it was Crosby who garnered praise from friends and foes alike. Detroit coach Mike Babcock constantly stated that shutting down Crosby’s line with defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski was the key to winning the series. When asked about the Stanley Cup victory owner, and former Penguin great Mario Lemieux told reports “When you have Sidney, anything is possible.”
The last third of Crosby’s accomplishments secured his membership into what NHL players refer to as the “triple gold club.” While Crosby’s performance leading up to the gold medal game in the Winter Olympics was considered atypical, his performance in overtime was not. With the entire weight of a nations hope on his shoulders, Crosby took a perfect pass from Jarome Iginla and by shear will power wrested it through the legs of America’s stalwart goaltender Ryan Miller. While Crosby’s performance in leading the Penguins to the Stanley Cup at 22, the youngest ever to do so, his overtime goal was certainly the one that cemented his legacy in Canadian hockey lore.
There are plenty of places to look for Pittsburgh’s demise in the 2010 playoffs. You could start with the surprisingly shaky play of Pittsburgh goaltender Marc Andre Fleury, who just a year earlier had made the game saving save on Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom as time had expired. This year however, Fleury played the role of goat, giving up four goals on just thirteen shots before being pulled in the second period. Fleury, like Crosby, is only twenty four, and seemingly his time to rectify one bad playoff run.
The blame however, does not simply reside on one person. The Penguins are built deeper than any other team in the league up the middle. The strength of having lines anchored by Crosby, Malkin, and Jordan Stall seemed to be offset by the lack of production from the supporting wingers. Players such as Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Maxim Talbot, Ruslan Fedetenko, and Pascal Dupis have failed to provide help to the strongest trio of centers in the NHL. Even the annual yearly addition provided by general manager Ray Shero, this year in the form of Alex Ponikarovsky failed to yield significant contributions.
Then there of course is Evgeni Malkin himself. Just a year removed from is dominating performance in last years playoffs, in which he won the Conn Smythe, Malkin had only managed a measly eleven points. Malkin seemed to play with such passivity, that it reminded many fans and experts of the timid player from the 2008 Stanley Cup finals, who all but disappeared against the Detroit Red Wings in a Six game series loss. It has always been true that while Sidney Crosby is the catalyst, the Penguins will go only as far as Crosby and Malkin can take them.
Crosby of course had another very strong showing in the playoffs. He totaled nineteen points (six goals and thirteen assists), all while being constantly pitted against the other teams top defensive pairing. He, like Alex Ovechkin was put in the unfortunate position of facing the league’s hottest goaltender in Jaraslov Halak. A player who seems to possess the ability to take the Canadians, seeded eighth, all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
Finally there is no doubt that Crosby faced fatigue. First, there were the grueling playoffs last year, followed by training camp, the Olympic orientation camp, the NHL regular season, and finally the Olympics. This being followed the completion of the regular season and the playoffs. It is impossible to argue that the taxing schedule did not have an effect on Crosby, both physically and mentally, even though Crosby will adamantly refuse to admit either publicly.
Despite all of the factors that contributed to Pittsburgh’s loss, it might be Crosby’s own performance that irks him the most. Was the chance he had to score on the backdoor against Halak on the power play the goal that would have finally turned the tide of the game? Could he have scored more than just five total points in the series? Crosby will certainly get a free pass and grace period from fans and pundits alike. Yet it is highly unlikely that he will get one from himself.
The reason for this is that Crosby realizes history will judge him not by his numbers, but by how much he has won and accomplished. Much like Kobe Bryant seeks to surpass Michael Jordan (a concept that becomes more real each day he inches closer to his fifth title), Crosby will always stand in the shadow of Wayne Gretzky. Since the mere age of thirteen, Crosby has drawn comparisons to the Great One from fans and competitors alike. Even Gretzky himself admitted that he believed Crosby the only one of surpassing his records.
This statement is a nice gesture in thought, but it strays far from reality. Gretzky holds sixty one NHL records that span over the postseason and regular season. He holds the records for most points, goals, and assists in a single season, and the playoffs. Gretzky holds nine Hart Trophy’s as the league’s most valuable player, and twice has won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Due to the nature of the game, and how it has evolved both with the rule changes, and physical evolution of its athletes, many commentators and fans have agreed that many of Gretzky’s individual records will be nearly impossible to surpass. Perhaps Gretzky’s least impressive statistic is the number of Stanley Cups he has won, which is four with the Edmonton Oilers.
Sidney Crosby realizes that the only way to even come close to reach the same rarified air as the Great One, it must not be done trying to chase Gretzky’s records. Instead Crosby must focus on winning Stanley Cups. Given the nucleus of players around him and their subsequent contracts, Crosby, like Gretzky in his youth, is in the best position to do so currently.
This brings us back to Wednesday’s loss in Pittsburgh. While many of the players on the Penguins might be satisfied with the Stanley Cup victory last June, Sidney Crosby is certainly not one of them. For Crosby certainly knows that his legacy will not be judged just one calendar year of accomplishments, but his whole career of achievements. The only way he will ever catch the Great One is with Cups. And with the playoffs with weaker seeds (Boston, Philadelphia), lower seeds (Montreal), and Western conference teams with troubled playoff histories (Chicago and San Jose), this was a golden opportunity for Crosby and the Penguins to capitalize and achieve one of the rarest feats in sports, a successful title defense.
Crosby and the Pens however, just watched the opportunity skate by. This must leave Crosby to wonder if he missed a golden opportunity to add to his legacy, because for Crosby, the time is always now.