PITTSBURGH – His first NHL goal didn’t leave him in awe. Neither did winning his first scoring title or MVP award, even if The Kid accomplished all of this while still a teenager.
So being the youngest team captain in Stanley Cup finals history isn’t about to get Sidney Crosby all giggly and gushy.
It’s taken him only three seasons to transform the Penguins from the NHL’s second-worst team into one of its best, so Crosby is understandably calm and confident as Pittsburgh begins preparing for the Cup finals against Detroit that begin Saturday night.
And that’s exactly how coach Michel Therrien expects Crosby to be: A young leader who is exceptionally perceptive and never rattled. Not even by his first visit to hockey’s biggest showcase.
“He’s been a great leader, he’s been a great captain at such a young age – to be able to concentrate on both sides of the ice as he does, this is how a team will get success,” Therrien said Tuesday. “When you’ve got your leader buying into it, the other players buy in as well. … Sidney is our leader and the players follow.”
Even if Crosby, at age 20, is the youngest captain in Stanley Cup history and is only about half the age of Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom, the unrivalled 38-year-old defenceman who poses a significant challenge to Pittsburgh’s scoring stars.
The NHL has lucked into perhaps its best possible matchup for these Stanley Cup finals, the fresh-faced Crosby and the oh-so-young Penguins vs. the tradition-filled Red Wings, who are trying to win their fourth Cup since 1997.
It’s a rising new power against an established old one – Detroit has had eight consecutive seasons with 100 or more points – in a series in which there should be plenty of offence but also excellent defence and goaltending.
Add in this intriguing story line: Can Crosby, only two years removed from being the age of a high school senior, personally will his team to a championship so early in his career?
Crosby is aware his presence might draw some curious viewers who otherwise might never tune into an NHL game. But he has no intentions of approaching this series any differently than he did those in the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Senators, Rangers and Flyers.
“We’re keeping it as normal as possible, the same way we’ve approached every series – and that’s making sure we worry about ourselves,” Crosby said. “I think our game is our focus.”
Still, no NHL team of recent vintage has gone into the finals with so many of its key players so young – Crosby, forwards Jordan Staal (19) and Evgeni Malkin (21) and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (23) are 23 or younger.
All this youth creates an interesting contrast with the Red Wings, who have 14 players who are 30 or older, including Lidstrom, goalie Chris Osgood (35), defenceman Chris Chelios (46), forward Dallas Drake (39), alternate captain Kris Draper (36) and defenceman Brian Rafalski (34).
The Red Wings are in the finals for the first time since last winning the Cup in 2002.
“They’re beatable, obviously, but they’re really good,” said Penguins forward Georges Laraque, who was on the 2006 Edmonton team that upset top-seeded Detroit in the first round. “They’ve added some key players and more grit. People are always talking about the Red Wings (being upset) in the playoffs. Well, now they’ve showed people they can be great in the playoffs.”
Detroit has been that while winning 12 of 16 playoff games, although Western Conference finalist Dallas helped by eliminating 2007 Stanley Cup champion Anaheim and second-seeded San Jose. The Penguins have been even better, winning 12 of 14 games.
Crosby, Malkin, Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone and Staal haven’t been challenged yet by defensive pairings as good as Detroit’s Lidstrom-Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall-Brad Stuart duos. But the Red Wings haven’t seen lines as deep as Pittsburgh’s, and coach Mike Babcock has the difficult choice of deciding whether Lidstrom is a better fit against the Malkin or Crosby lines.
“It’s a great challenge going against him (Lidstrom),” Crosby said. “Positionally, he’s great and has a good stick and he’s a big guy. Those are the little challenges within the game that make it fun. It’s part of competing and I think we’ll all tell you that we love to compete.”
The Red Wings have exceptional scorers in Henrik Zetterberg (11 goals, 21 points in 16 games) and Pavel Datsyuk (nine goals, 19 points). However, their offence has clearly missed Johan Franzen (concussion-like symptoms), who still leads the playoffs with 12 goals but hasn’t played since Game 1 against Dallas.
Franzen’s status for the finals remains uncertain, and without him the Red Wings were held to two goals or fewer in half of their six games against Dallas. That kind of scoring won’t get it done against the Penguins, who have put up four or more goals nine times in their 12 playoff victories.
Pittsburgh, mostly because of Fleury’s confident and composed play, also is allowing a playoff-low 1.86 goals per game.
“They’ve got an elite defenceman, but we have one, too (in Sergei Gonchar),” Therrien said. “We’ve got a lot of speed and a threat coming from different lines, so if they want to concentrate on one line, we have other lines that can do some damage as well. They’ve got some quality players, some world class players, but we’ve got some, too. So I think it’s going to be an exciting series.”