PITTSBURGH: Sidney Crosby does not have an off switch. If there was one, Patric Hornqvist believes he would have found it by now.
Not once in the past two years while playing alongside one of the NHL’s most popular players has Hornqvist seen an exasperated sigh, a roll of the eyes or so much as a smirk from the superstar who has dutifully served as one of the faces of the league from the moment the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted him No. 1 overall in 2005 and he became tasked with restoring the languishing franchise to glory.
“It’s crazy how well-prepared he is for everything,” Hornqvist said.
Of course it’s easy to say now, with the Penguins holding a 1-0 lead over the San Jose Sharks heading into Wednesday night’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Their captain and two-time MVP seems restored to his place among the game’s elite after ending a seven-year drought between appearances in the NHL’s marquee event.
It’s a gap few saw coming when the 21-year-old Crosby held the Cup aloft in joy in Detroit back in 2009 after beating the Red Wings in seven games.
“Everybody thought [we’d] win 5-6-7 in the next 10 years,” said recently retired Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis.
Everybody thought wrong. The burgeoning dynasty fizzled, with Crosby bearing the brunt of perpetual disappointment, accepting the blame for everything from his health to spotty goaltending to a top-heavy roster that lacked the depth necessary to make a deep postseason run.
“Look, this is his third final in his short career to this point, and that’s pretty good,” said former Penguins coach Ed Olczyk, who coached Crosby as a rookie in 2005-06. “Now, in saying that, there haven’t been many teams that have underachieved more than the Pittsburgh Penguins over the course of the last five or six years.”
A label Crosby took personally even as circumstances made him struggle to shed it. There was the protracted recovery from concussion-like symptoms that robbed him of two seasons in his prime. A series of meek playoff flameouts in which opponents found a way to stifle his brilliance.
“You just have to be able to put it all together at the right time,” Crosby said. “I don’t think we necessarily lacked those things in years we didn’t win. I think you just have to be able to put it together and come up with those big plays at timely times.”
And in some ways, Crosby had to grow up, too. For all his talent he can occasionally be too unselfish with the puck on his stick, sometimes trading wide-open shots for difficult passes.
It’s a line he’s learned to straddle more carefully under Mike Sullivan, who freed Crosby from the constraints placed on him by former coach Mike Johnston. Sullivan encouraged Crosby to embrace his creativity so long as he finds a way to do it responsibly. It’s not a coincidence that Crosby put up 31 goals and 36 assists in 52 games with Sullivan on the bench. He’s added six goals and 10 assists through 19 playoff games.
For proof, look no further than Crosby’s vibrant play in the Penguins’ 3-2 win over the Sharks in Game 1. There was the slick backhand feed to rookie teammate Conor Sheary for the opening goal. The relentless work around the net. The vision that allows him to see things others do not.
“Everything about him is about how he creates a competitive advantage for himself,” Sullivan said. “Watching it every day I’ve grown to have more respect and more admiration for the type of effort he’s put in to be the best player in the world.”
It’s a moniker Crosby held throughout his early 20s, up until the moment Washington Capitals center David Steckel’s stick smashed into Crosby’s head during the 2011 Winter Classic, a collision that sent Crosby on a two-year odyssey for a return to normal and nearly made him a cautionary tale.
He only speaks about that period in only vague terms now, though Hornqvist is quick to point out Crosby is more judicious when it comes to deciding when to drive to the net and when to pull back than he was earlier in his career. Crosby would prefer to talk about the present and a future that once again looks promising. He turns 29 in August, hardly old but no longer “Sid The Kid.”
That’s a good thing. The captaincy thrust upon him as a teenager no longer feels symbolic but earned. He’s made it a point to become a better teammate away from the rink, whether it’s pulling aside younger players to talk about working with referees to keeping tabs on those recovering from injury, his comfort zone spreading far wider than his 200-by-85 foot office.
“I think he’s always been more mature than his age,” Dupuis said. “You take that and you take the stuff that he’s gone through and you add to it while he’s 28 right now, he’s probably the most mature 28-year-old you’ll see on the planet.”