Paul Maurice was spot-on last year when he said, and we’re paraphrasing here, that almost every day in the NHL is pretty darn spectacular. But some are more spectacular than others, and this particular Friday afternoon, in a horse-palace-turned-minor-league-rink a stone’s throw from downtown Toronto, is definitely one of them.
About 15 hours after they’ve dispatched the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that wants to be them when it grows up, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in that unique state of bliss, having just finished a short, fast-paced practice on the road. With Brian Dumoulin running the music and playing back-to-back selections such as Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2 and Tainted Love by Soft Cell – both outstanding choices – the Penguins are in that bubble of comfort, with nothing to look forward to but a free night in Canada’s largest city followed by a couple of days at a resort in Banff before they go up against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. No controversies, no new injuries and the fumes of an impressive victory lingering in the air. Yes, life is good.
It is against this backdrop that Evgeni Malkin talks about a goal he scored almost eight years ago. (More on that later.) He watches the play on a laptop computer and describes it in detail, then as he passes Sidney Crosby’s stall, Malkin says, “Show him goal.” As Crosby watches the goal, his face lights up. He and Malkin start replaying their recollections of it. “Remember, we were 4-on-4?” Malkin says.
“Yeah, the center got kicked out, and Vernon Fiddler took the draw, and you told me to push forward,” Crosby says. “Yeah, that game was right around Christmas. Against Phoenix. You don’t score too many goals like that, right?”
Around this time, you’re imagining what it would be like to see Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri discuss the fine art of violin making, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla kibitz about inventing and innovation, or even, heck, Plato and Socrates discuss the meaning of life, and you realize the hockey version of that is unfolding in front of your eyes. This is pure hockey genius on display. Each of their versions of that goal is a carbon copy with both players remembering the play in exact, crisp detail. It’s a magical moment, especially for those of us who don’t remember what we had for lunch yesterday.
Over the course of his Hall of Fame-worthy career, Crosby had 411 goals and 710 assists for 1,121 points after the Toronto game. Nobody has had more of a symbiotic offensive relationship with Crosby than Malkin, who has points on 341 goals for which Crosby has scored or earned an assist. Malkin has assisted on 114 of Crosby’s goals and scored 129 of his own on which Crosby has earned an assist. The two of them have had assists on 98 goals scored by other players. All told, 120 players share at least one point on a goal in which Crosby has been involved. They range from Hall of Famers Mark Recchi (71) and Mario Lemieux (eight) to future Hall of Famers Malkin and Jarome Iginla (four), to journeymen such as Dominic Moore and Luca Caputi (one each). Curiously, Nick Bonino played two seasons with the Penguins and never got in on a scoring play with Crosby. In fact, Crosby’s not sure the two were ever even on the ice together for a goal. “When I scored my 1,000th point, the NHL came out with a list of everybody who had points on my goals,” Crosby said. “Right away, I got a text from (Bonino) saying, ‘What the hell?’ We had a good laugh about it.”
Lyle Odelein and Eric Cairns, on the other hand, will always be able to tell their grandchildren they went out in style by recording their last NHL points with Crosby in the scoring line with them. Both players notched just one point as Pittsburgh Penguins, with Odelein assisting on a Crosby goal on Oct. 14, 2005, and Crosby recording a second assist on the 10th and final goal of Cairns’ career on Jan. 26, 2006. Micki DuPont, who is still slugging it out with the Berlin Polar Bears at 38, played 23 games in the NHL and scored four points. His last was an assist on a Crosby goal on Dec. 9, 2006. Conor Sheary scored his first two points in his second NHL game, a goal that came on an assist from Crosby and a goal by Trevor Daley on which he and Crosby had the assists.
The goals have come in all forms, usually with Crosby getting up from the ice and adjusting his visor before wiping the snow off his team crest. He’s scored them on his belly, on his back, on one knee, on both knees. He’s batted them out of the air, scored top-shelf on backhands and from impossible angles. He’s powered his way through defensemen, sliced through them and dangled around them. He has scored 1-on-1, 1-on-2, sometimes even 1-on-3. He has scored with opponents draped on his back and slashing at his hands. He has put pucks through mazes of sticks and skates, made on-the-tape passes to open teammates while being mugged and battled for a puck in the corner with the ferocity of Bert Olmstead before feathering a pass to a teammate with the touch of Adam Oates.
Few players in the NHL today, nay ever, have forged a career making something spectacular out of nothing like Crosby has. “There were just so many times when he had nothing, and every person in the building and, most importantly, the guys he was playing against thought they had him and their angle was good and the play was over, and the next thing you know it was in the back of the net,” said former teammate Ryan Whitney. “Then he does something incredible, a highlight, career-defining thing. He has the imagination to do things other people don’t even see, let alone think to try. He proves that the impossible is possible. And if you talk to his teammates, a lot of them would say he’s done things in practice that were even more incredible. I’ve seen him do things that would never make it to games and make you say, ‘If people could see this, they’d even be more blown away by him.’ ”
When Crosby talks about his own signature plays, one of the first things he does is apologize for not having any recent highlight goals to discuss, which is so Crosby. Then he’s reminded it was just last March that he batted the puck out of the air twice on a goal against Carey Price, a play that came one year to the day after he scored a one-handed backhand goal after splitting the Buffalo Sabres’ defense tandem. The date: March 21. “I didn’t know that. Really?” Crosby said. “Where are we playing on that date this year?” We checked and they’ll be in Nashville that night. So consider yourself warned, Predators.
From the time Crosby registered his first point in his first NHL game, an assist on a goal by Recchi, to his dazzling overtime goal in a 6-5 win over Edmonton in late October with Connor McDavid watching from the high slot, Crosby has never ceased to amaze. As he settles into being just a 90-point player, he goes about his business while the hockey world argues whether McDavid or Toronto’s Auston Matthews is the best player on the planet. “I watched McDavid the other night, and he had four points, and he was an absolute star,” said Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “When you’ve been the best player on the best team, to me, that’s totally different than being the best player on a team that’s not as good. So to me, it’s not even close.”
Added Penguins coach Mike Sullivan: “Sid is the most driven athlete I’ve ever been around. He’s certainly the heartbeat of this team.”
If Crosby plays until the end of his contract in 2025, that would take him to just before his 38th birthday. After the Edmonton game, he had 1,123 career points, which put him exactly 600 behind Lemieux, who currently occupies No. 8 on the NHL’s all-time list, for No. 1 among Penguins in career points. It’s certainly within Crosby’s grasp. Babcock thought Nicklas Lidstrom was the best defenseman in the league at 40. It’s doubtful Crosby will be that dominant as he pushes the upper reaches of his 30s, but for now, Crosby is unwilling to allow a number to determine his place in the game. “You don’t want age to be a factor when you’re 18, and you don’t want it to be a factor when you’re 31,” Crosby said. “Whether you’re on one side or the other, you’re not going to use it as an excuse. Now that I’m older and I know there’s less time, I appreciate it more. I just love it. I love competing, I love being part of a team, I love trying to get better.”
For the past 13-plus seasons, the hockey world has enjoyed being along for the ride. So have the 120 players who have shared the scoresheet with him. We’ve isolated eight Crosby goals/assists, some very memorable, others rather ordinary. But each of them highlights something Crosby has done very, very well.
THE GOAL: Jan. 7, 2007 vs. Tampa Bay at 19:55 of the second period. Goal by Sidney Crosby, assisted by Mark Recchi.
THE STORY: Three weeks before the goal against the Coyotes, Crosby scores one of the most spectacular goals of his career using equal amounts of speed, determination and courage. The Lightning miss the net on a shot, which comes to Recchi on the right boards for a 2-on-1 with Crosby. Recchi makes a pass too far for Crosby to reach, so he dives with his stick out, redirecting the puck past goalie Johan Holmqvist. “He’s so gifted that there’s never a bad pass to him,” Recchi said. “I knew I was going to zip it, but I was laughing afterward, because it wasn’t a very good pass and somehow he made it work.”
That’s likely not a goal Crosby tries to score at 31, but at 19, it seemed like a really good idea at the time. “I’m lucky because I clipped a bit of the net,” Crosby said. “To go down full tilt, then dive head-first, I was lucky I caught a little bit of the net. It’s pretty dangerous, but you’re young, so you don’t really think about that.”
THE GOAL: Jan 27, 2007 vs. Phoenix at 4:48 of the third period. Goal by Sidney Crosby, assisted by Mark Recchi and Ryan Whitney.
THE STORY: Aside from his golden goal at the 2010 Olympics, this is Crosby’s favorite goal in the NHL. With the Penguins leading 4-2 and on a power play, Crosby gets the puck on his backhand and is tripped up by Coyotes winger Fredrik Sjostrom. As Crosby falls backward to the ice, he sends a backhand to the top corner past goalie Mikael Tellqvist. “I know I got a lot of first and second assists passing it to Crosby and Malkin about 35 seconds before the goal happened,” Whitney said. “That was the perfect example of a normal little nothing pass and getting an assist out of it and that’s pretty much what happens when you play with Crosby.”
It’s also a perfect example of just how lethal Crosby has been on the backhand over the course of his career. When it comes to all-time backhand shooters, it would not be a stretch to say Crosby ranks among the best ever, up there with the likes of Dave Keon, Mats Sundin and Pavel Datsyuk. “I remember saying that his backhand was actually harder than my slapshot,” Whitney said. “There were times when he would score on backhand in a game or a practice and they were probably 80 miles an hour, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. He’s always had a pretty straight curve, which is part of the reason he has such a great backhand. But the fact that he was able to do things on his forehand with that little a curve was always incredible to me.”
THE GOAL:March 25, 2007 vs. Boston at 4:29 of the third period. Goal by Sidney Crosby, assisted by Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen.
THE STORY: With Pittsburgh leading 4-0 and Crosby already notching his 33rd goal and 77th assist of the season, the Pens win the draw deep in the Bruins’ zone. Christensen takes a shot, which Armstrong deflects to Crosby, who buries it into a yawning cage behind goalie Joey MacDonald, who is in the crease after the Penguins chased Tim Thomas. “After the first period that night, we were talking about how we were going to score a goal,” Armstrong said. “He said he was going to get one on his backhand. He called it. He scored, and when he came in to celebrate, he was like, ‘I got it! I got it on my backhand!’ He just kept saying that, and he was all happy that he called it.”
It didn’t surprise Armstrong that Crosby was able to predict he would score, then go out and do it as though he drew it up himself. “At the big moment, it’s always on their stick,” he said. “And more often than not, those superstar guys make it count.”
THE GOAL:April 16, 2010 Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs vs. Ottawa, 15:48 of the third period. Goal by Kris Letang, assisted by Sidney Crosby and Bill Guerin.
THE STORY: Crosby digs the puck out of the feet of Senators defenseman Andy Sutton in the corner, then skates behind the Ottawa net with Jason Spezza checking him. Crosby looks for an open man, doesn’t find anyone, then curls behind the net before cutting back to the side of the net, making a pass from his knees to Letang at the point. The entire time Crosby is being dogged by Spezza, who can only watch in dismay as Letang scores from the blueline. “Give Crosby a couple of assists on that one,” said Hockey Night In Canada play-by-play man Bob Cole. “Oh, baby!”
Remember what Whitney said about Crosby making something out of nothing? “You see how he protects the puck,” Letang said. “He goes 10 and 2 like it’s nothing. He found me, and I had tons of time because at a certain point, when he owns the puck like that, everybody is kind of looking at him, so it left me wide open.”
Even Crosby allows himself to be a little impressed by what he made happen on that goal. He says he and Spezza are friends and have had a couple of laughs about it over the years. “He really did a good job, I didn’t have anything,” Crosby said. “He played me really, really well. I didn’t have any room. If that was me on the opposite end, if I were Spezza and he were me, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
THE GOAL:Dec. 20, 2010 vs. Phoenix, 19:25 of the first period. Goal by Evgeni Malkin, assisted by Sidney Crosby.
THE STORY: With the faceoff in the Coyotes’ end, Crosby pushes the puck ahead on the draw against Lauri Korpikoski, who replaced Fiddler in the faceoff circle. (It turns out Crosby and Malkin’s memories are only 99-percent perfect. As they remembered it, Korpikoski got kicked out, but it was the reverse.) Crosby picks up the puck on his forehand and passes to Malkin, who one-times it past goalie Jason LaBarbera on a play that takes exactly two seconds to execute. “We worked in practice on this move,” Malkin said. “I look to Sid, and he looks to me, and we look at each other, and with my eyes I tell him, ‘Like, go forward, because they change the guy and the second guy is not a center.’ I tell Sid, ‘You need cheat, play forward.’ And right away, we score.”
There was a time early in his career when Crosby wasn’t very good on the draw, but he dedicated himself to improve, and became one of the better faceoff artists in the NHL.
THE GOAL:March 21, 2017 vs. Buffalo at 19:51 of the first period. Goal by Sidney Crosby, assisted by Justin Schultz and Conor Sheary.
THE STORY: On the night the Penguins clinch a playoff spot en route to their second straight Cup, Crosby takes a shovel pass from Schultz deep in Pittsburgh territory and gains speed through the neutral zone. Crosby skates through flailing one-handed stick checks by Marcus Foligno and Ryan O’Reilly, then beats defenseman Zach Bogosian to the net, warding him off with his left hand. With his right hand at the top of his stick, Crosby flicks a one-handed backhand shot over the shoulder of goalie Robin Lehner. “That was funny, because Tom Kuhnhackl used to be here, and we were skating around in the morning and for whatever reason, I had to do that in the morning skate,” Crosby said. “The puck came and I one-handed it. There was no goalie in the net, but I got it up pretty good, and I ended up doing exactly the same thing that night. We ended up having a pretty good laugh about that after I scored.”
THE GOAL:March 24, 2017 vs. New York Islanders at 13:41 of the second period. Goal by Sidney Crosby, assisted by Chad Ruhwedel and Conor Sheary.
THE STORY: It’s inevitable that Crosby will surpass the 500-goal mark in the next few seasons, but one thing that might be underrated about him is his shot. It was not very good or very scary early in his career. But this goal shows Crosby’s versatility and maturation as a player. First, he makes a smart pass to drop it back to Ruhwedel, whose stick is open and ready for a shot. Ruhwedel’s attempt is blocked by Islanders defenseman Calvin de Haan, but the rebound comes out to Crosby, who drops to one knee and buries the one-timer. It’s yet another example of a team doing everything right against Crosby, the way de Haan did by blocking the shot in a textbook manner, and still getting burned.
Ruhwedel says that play developed because of Crosby’s ability to see the ice so well. “He sees everybody on the ice and gives you really good passes that you’re ready to shoot,” he said. “I had a feeling that pass was coming. One of the things with him is you just have to be ready for the puck, because there’s a good chance it’s coming to you. Just play fast.”
THE GOAL:March 21, 2018 vs. Montreal at 15:02 of the second period. Goal by Sidney Crosby, assisted by Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.
THE STORY: Crosby collects his 700th career assist in this game, but the night will be forever remembered for his double-tip goal. Crosby makes a pass out of the corner that hits Montreal defenseman Jeff Petry’s stick and goes airborne before being batted down by Guentzel. The puck bounces off the ice, up to Crosby, who bats it to himself before knocking it out of the air on his backhand. “Sid goes in there like it’s no big deal, bats it up to himself and whacks it in and he doesn’t even celebrate that hard,” Rust said. “Just another day at the office.”
Rust has been Crosby’s linemate from time to time and, like others who have played with him in the past, says it’s best to treat Crosby like a teenager going through a difficult breakup when he has the puck. Just leave him alone and stay out of his way. The puck will often find you. And Rust admits he’s among those who have been intimidated by the prospect of playing with Crosby. “You can definitely get a little starstruck,” Rust said. “The first time I played with him on a line in Tampa Bay, I was minus-3 or minus-4. I was terrible. I was trying to make ridiculous plays, but you have to get back to earth. You’re in the NHL for a reason, and you have to play your game.”
This story appears in the December 10, 2018 of The Hockey News magazine.