PITTSBURGH – Win or lose, taking his team to the Stanley Cup final has been big for 20-year-old Sidney Crosby.
The Cole Harbour, N.S., native has been a leader on and off the ice for the young, talent-stacked Pittsburgh Penguins, even while struggling to score early in the best-of-seven final against the Detroit Red Wings.
“It’s pretty much everything I expected,” Crosby said hours before Wednesday’s Game 3 of his first experience in the final. “I tried not to think about it coming in and just tried to prepare the same way.
“It’s a big stage and you could expect that. What I take out of the whole experience down the road, I’ll tell you after the series.”
Crosby has been in tough against the experienced Detroit checkers and especially against the Red Wings’ brilliant defence veteran Nick Lidstrom, but still has used his speed, vision and combative style to create scoring chances against the league’s best defensive team.
“It’s tough checking,” said the Penguins captain. “I just have to make sure that when I get chances, I capitalize on them.
“They pressure a lot, and sometimes you get caught thinking you have less time than you do to make plays. It’s a matter of reading the play and reacting right.”
Coach Michel Therrien says Crosby has grown along with the team as it progressed through series wins over Ottawa, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia to the final. Surprising on-ice leaders have emerged, including Crosby’s linemate Ryan Malone and tough defenceman Brooks Orpik.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has come into his own in the post-season, although the team’s other star forward Evgeni Malkin has appeared to flag as the games drag on.
In that young group’s first playoff test a year ago, they lasted only five games against Ottawa. This year, they’ve taken another big step.
“That young team didn’t know what to expect from the playoffs,” said Therrien. “As coaches, you show players videos and talk about your experiences, but you’ve got to be in there.
“This is (Crosby’s) first experience in a Stanley Cup final and I’m sure it’s going to help him for the rest of his career.”
In the first two games in Detroit, there was much talk about how Crosby’s line was shut down by the Red Wings top unit of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom, but Therrien said he has no problem with that matchup.
It was the Lidstrom-Brian Rafalski defence pair that gave the Crosby line grief. Lidstrom, perhaps the NHL’s top defenceman, considers Crosby a special challenge.
“He’s a really strong skater and he’d good at protecting the puck,” said Lidstrom. “And he can draw two players to him and use that to find openings for his teammates.
“He’s a great all-around player.”
Crosby, the top draft pick of 2005, was the NHL’s most valuable player last season when he led the league with 120 points. He may have matched that this season, but he missed 29 games with a high ankle sprain in the second half and settled for 24 goals and 72 points in 53 games.
In his absence, Crosby’s rival to the best-in-the-game label Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals grabbed the scoring title with 65 goals and 112 points. He’s now a finalist for the Hart Trophy.
The NHL brought Crosby, its brightest young star, to a podium to answer questions from the media after the team’s game-day skate, but that was nothing special.
He has done the same every game day and nearly every off-day since the playoffs began, and twice on one day when the Penguins practised at their home rink and then travelled to Detroit.
Crosby, much like a young Wayne Gretzky a generation ago, and Ovechkin are both refreshingly media-friendly in a sport that struggles for attention in the United States against football, baseball and basketball.
Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, on the other hand, was aloof with the media in his heyday as a superstar in the 1980s and 1990s, and has begun to take heat for not making himself available during this year’s playoffs.