Seven years later, Sidney Crosby seems to have it all again. His Pittsburgh Penguins are back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009, and they have a 1-0 lead entering Wednesday's Game 2 against the San Jose Sharks.
Everything looks so easy for him again, including the brilliant, shaved-ice, turnaround back pass to teammate Conor Sheary that resulted in the Penguins' second goal in their 3-2 Game 1 victory Monday. The fact that it took so long for him to get this far again would have been hard to believe back in the winter of 2010.
Just five years after turning pro, Crosby had both a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal under his belt. Already hockey's most famous player, Crosby became a national hero with his "golden goal" for Canada in overtime against the United States during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
This was why 30 NHL teams prayed fervently to the pingpong-ball gods in 2005, when the league held a special draft lottery in which Crosby was the jackpot prize.
How easy it all seemed for Crosby, who was still just 22 at the time of those Olympics. The question wasn't whether Crosby would win another Cup; it was how many. How many more Hart Trophies, gold medals and any other bounties the sport could offer? As many as Crosby wanted—or so it seemed in 2010.
For much of the next six seasons, fate was much less kind to Crosby. There were the injuries, including serious concussions, that caused him to miss large chunks of two seasons, starting with the blindside hit to the head from the Washington Capitals' David Steckel on Jan. 1, 2011, and another high hit from the Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman four days later. He would be sidelined until Nov. 21, 2011, and his symptoms re-emerged eight games after his return. He stayed out until mid-March and later admitted to the CBC's Peter Mansbridge, "I'd be lying if I didn't say that I thought about it," when asked if he was worried he'd never play again.
After returning to the ice, he endured other professional frustrations, too. From 2011-15, the Penguins lost three first-round playoff series, making it only as far as the Eastern Conference Final in 2013 before the Boston Bruins swept them. While Crosby did win a Hart Trophy in 2014, his second, the Penguins lost in the second round that spring to the New York Rangers. They again lost to the Rangers in the first round last year.
This season, Crosby got off to the worst statistical start of his career. He didn't notch a point in his first five games and only had one goal in his first 11. As a team, the Penguins got off to a mediocre 15-10-3 start, leading some pundits to suggest the Penguins should trade No. 87 and his $8.7 million cap hit. The Penguins fired head coach Mike Johnston on Dec. 12. Crosby and the Penguins seemed a million miles away from contending for a Stanley Cup.
But here he is, three wins away from taking the Cup back to Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, where he grew up and where he took the Cup to just about every nook and cranny in 2009.
Now at the age of 28 and with 11 NHL seasons in the rearview mirror, Crosby is savoring his time back near the top.
"I think I appreciate it more having been what I've been through,” Crosby said Sunday, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Steve Carp. “You never know if you'll get another chance, so I'm definitely more motivated to win."
After Game 1, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan discussed what he noticed about Crosby during his postgame press conference:
You could see his hunger to win. He's inspiring. I thought he was a force out there all night. He's so strong on the puck. His speed through the neutral zone; he's a threat. Every time he jumps over the boards, we feel like he's a threat to score—just a threat as far as putting pressure on our opponent's defense. He has that twinkle in his eye, I think. He knows that we've played extremely hard to get to this point. When he plays that way, I think he inspires the whole group.
Indeed he did, said Penguins forward Matt Cullen.
"Talk about a leader going out and grabbing the reins and saying, 'Follow me,'" Cullen said after the game, per NHL.com's Dan Rosen. "He was strong on pucks. He was making plays. He was impossible to defend. He was really good and it's impossible not to follow that."
If Crosby wins another Cup soon, it will be tempting to forecast many more glorious things for him and the Penguins. He's still a young man. But history has shown that not even Crosby can traverse through a career with impunity.
The Crosby of then might have looked ahead more. The Crosby of now seems perfectly content living in the moment. And that's all you really ever have anyway, isn't it?
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.