TORONTO – I'll try to keep the hyperbole at a minimum here, but when it comes to Sidney Crosby, one of the greatest hockey players of all-time, it's difficult to avoid.
So I won't say the hockey world left Crosby for dead last December. But considering the lofty standard he's set for himself throughout his career, he experienced perhaps his own equivalent of being left for dead. He had two goals and 11 points after 20 games. He was struggling through a season so miserable he even wrote this summer about how badly he never wanted to experience that feeling again. The idea of him climbing back into the NHL scoring race and reclaiming his unofficial title of World's Best Hockey Player seemed far fetched. The sport belonged to Patrick Kane or, the year before, Carey Price. And there was nothing wrong with that. Crosby was a decade into a Hall of Fame career, he was nearing the end of his 20s, and it was possible he was merely exiting his prime a bit earlier than expected.
The Crosby-is-finished hype looks laughable now in hindsight. From the moment the Penguins fired coach Mike Johnston and promoted Mike Sullivan from their AHL affiliate, Crosby ignited. Sullivan helped free him up to play his north-south game at breakneck speed. Crosby's 66 points in 52 games over the rest of the season led the NHL. He was the league's best player in the playoffs and took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as second-season MVP. His days of lapping the scoring field with 120-point seasons were over, but the new Crosby was an evolved version, dominant in every aspect of the game, from faceoffs to lower-body strength to puck protection to advanced statistics to his good, ole-fashioned laser of a backhander. Like Steve Yzerman midway through his career, Crosby enjoyed a renaissance of sorts as a more complete specimen.
After watching Crosby skate circles around the Czechs in Canada's first round-robin game at the World Cup Saturday, it's time to wonder if Crosby, already the best player of this generation, is getting better. His chemistry with linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand is excellent. He showed a sixth sense when he fed Joe Thornton all alone in the slot for Canada's fourth goal. He looked flawless out there.
"I think he's always been the best player in the world," said defenseman Brent Burns, Crosby's Stanley Cup final foe with the San Jose Sharks, now his teammate with Canada. "What makes him that is he works every day at it. He's always striving to get better, to be the best and stay up on that plateau, I think there are a lot of guys chasing him, and that pushes him to get better."
Now's the time when angry Flyers fans, er, blog commenters, strike back against the so-called insufferable Crosby love. But to do so at this point is to merely be a contrarian, to be a hater of greatness. Instead of fighting it, just stop and appreciate it. It wasn't hyperbolic to praise Wayne Gretzky's brilliance, nor Bobby Orr's, nor Mario Lemieux's, nor Patrick Roy's. And Crosby is approaching a similar stratosphere. He has two scoring titles, two MVPs, two Stanley Cups, a Rocket Richard, two Olympic gold medals, two Olympic game-winning goals, a World Championship and the highest points per game of any NHLer in history not named Gretzky, Orr, Lemieux or Bossy. If he keeps playing like he did to open the World Cup, he'll add one more impressive team trophy to the case. Canada coach Mike Babcock isn't yet ready to concede that Crosby has reached a new level, though.
"Let's not get carried way," Babcock said. "He was the star in Sochi. He was the star in Vancouver. What you saw tonight, though, is he got the points. Everyone likes to get points, Sid likes to get points, too, but it took the team to win, and he was the leader. Were in the process here, and as the team gets better, he has to get better. But it was a good start for his line."
And maybe why Crosby keeps improving is because he adopts that same mindset. He's never satisfied. Neither were any of the sport's all-time greats.
"There are still things we can improve on, but to get rewarded for our hard work, and get a couple on the power play, and get some big kills early on, all those little things go a long way," he told reporters after the game.
And that line is Crosby in a nutshell, isn't it? The man accomplishing the big things on the big stage is the one obsessed with the little things.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin