By Sean Hartnett
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There’s always been something about Sidney Crosby that separates him from other stars in the NHL.
In league where there’s no shortage of world class talents, the 28-year-old captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins stands alone as the ultimate game changer.
Anything can happen when he gets the puck in the neutral zone. Crosby can split two defenders with a made-you-look deke before rushing in and torching a helpless goalie. He can carry the puck into the corner, drawing multiple defenders to him before making the perfect, cross-ice tape-to-tape pass to an open teammate in a prime scoring area.
Give Crosby a patch of open ice and he’s deadly. Put an opponent tight on Crosby when he has possession and he’ll move that defender like a chess piece to create his own passing lane. Countless times, you will see him guarded tightly and he’ll abuse the defender with a spin-o-rama and find a teammate cutting to the crease.
It’s that kind of unpredictability that makes Crosby so difficult to contain. His magnificent backhand was on full display for a national audience during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the San Jose Sharks. Crosby’s first-period assist was a thing of beauty, helping the Pens to a 3-2 victory.
As the puck hugged the neutral zone boards, Crosby taught Sharks defenseman Justin Braun a lesson. The Pens’ star collected the rubber in the corner and made a quick pivot. An unsuspecting Braun lost his balance and before nearby Logan Couture could react, Crosby was able to dish a backhanded feed to goalscorer Conor Sheary.
“You could see his hunger to win,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said of Crosby after Game 1. “He’s inspiring. I thought he was a force out there all night. He’s so strong on the puck. His speed through the neutral zone. He’s a threat. Every time he jumps over the boards, we feel like he’s a threat to score, just a threat as far as putting pressure on our opponent’s defense. He has that twinkle in his eye, I think. He knows that we’ve played extremely hard to get to this point. When he plays that way, I think he inspires the whole group.”
It’s the blending of his elite-level talent with an unquenchable work ethic that makes Crosby a one-of-a-kind standout in a league of superstars. There’s no resting on laurels. It’s not in Sidney’s DNA.
“As long as I’ve been associated with this league, I don’t know that I’ve been around a player that has the same work ethic as Sid does as far as that insatiable appetite to just try to get better and be the best,” Sullivan said on Tuesday. “I think that’s why he’s as good as he is. Everybody sees his talent. There’s a lot of talented guys out there. But I think his work ethic allows him to be the player that he is. It’s impressive. I think it also sets a standard for our team when your captain and your top player brings a work ethic to the rink every day like he does. He certainly makes my job as the head coach a lot easier as far as demanding the type of standard we need to in order to be successful.”
Some guys just want to be the best. Crosby doesn’t only want to be the best player on the ice, he demands his teammates follow his desire of continuing to find ways to improve and never be satisfied. It’s about creating a culture — a culture of winning and pushing standards to a higher level.
Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup triumph in 2009 seems like it was ages ago. There’s been a feeling that this franchise has underachieved in the years that have followed. All the while, Crosby has been doing everything in his power to get the Penguins back to hockey’s mountaintop.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey