By Larry Wigge
The play came out of nowhere.
A shot by defeneman Kris Letang richoted off forward Patric Hornqvist. Sidney Crosby was just there at a near-impossible angle for an almost near-impossible goal. He fired an off-balanced on the goal line and sent shot past New Jersey defenseman Andy Greene and a diving goaltender Cory Schneider before Crosby crashed into the backboards.
It came with 4:33 remaining in the Pittsburgh Penguins final game before the All-Star break for a 1-0 lead in a 2-0 victory, giving Sid the Kid 11 goals and eight assists in 15 games since the club started 0-4 under new coach Mike Sullivan.
"Sid's playing with passion. He's playing hard. He's playing in the battle areas like tonight," said Sullivan. "When he plays at his best, he plays with emotion. You can see it in his game and can see it on the bench.
"He's emotionally invested in the game."
But Sid's not going to the All-Star Game at Nashville. His invisibility is viewed in Pittsburgh as the reason for firing coach Mike Johnston. The reason why the Penguins have had to go on a run of 9-3-4 during Crosby's hot streak.
Clearly, Sid the Kid loves challenges. He's a strong leader, not a rah-rah cheerleader type. But he's a strong individual. And like Gretzky, he's ahead of the curve when it comes to knowing how to make the next quantum leap. To underscore that fact, Crosby, with great awareness of the situation, knew how long it took Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Michael Jordan to win their first championships before we asked.
Look in his eyes. Everything you need to know about him is right there. The focus. The fire. Just like you would find in the eyes of greats from Rocket Richard to Gordie Howe to Jean Beliveau to Bobby Orr to Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier to Mario Lemieux to Crosby and all the rest of today's legion of young stars like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and the rest.
So, where does Crosby stand in what seems like a meteoric rise in the NHL? Even if his evolution were to inexplicably flatline, Crosby would go down as a great.
"What doesn't he do?" asked Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom before Game 7 in 2009 when the Penguins won their last Cup. "He's good on the puck. He's quick, he's strong, he's got a great shot and he knows how to find his teammates. He backs you off defensively with his skills. He's a special, special player.
"Winning a Stanley Cup is often the defining moment for a player. In this case, Sid was already on his way."
Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg, who has been primarily responsible for matching up with Crosby in the last two Final series, said he doesn't see anything new that surprises him from No. 87.
"The same skills are there that were there in last year's series," Zetterberg said. "If anything, he's been more determined. What I appreciate most about him is how hard he works -- and the fact that he never gives up on a play.
"Those are the traits of a champion."
Unlike Lemieux and Gretzky, who slowed the game down, Crosby plays quickly. He bursts from his own zone. Teammates tell you they have to always be alert, because he'll find your stick with a pass in a split second.
It seems like just yesterday -- instead of of the summer of 2005 and the NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa -- when Sid was about to be picked first overall by the Penguins and his dad, Troy, was talking about building a roller-blade rink in the family basement, and how his kid pounded pucks off the washer and dryer all night long. Amazingly, the dryer still worked.
But I knew this Kid was different when, a few moments later, I ran into then-Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke, who lost out on winning the lottery and wound up with the second pick -- and I'll never forget what Burke told me.
"I stopped breathing there for a minute, because we were that close to getting him," Burke explained, holding two fingers as tightly together as possible. "I knew what a difference a guy like him could make to a franchise. He's got winner written all over him."
When I hear superlatives like that, I take notice. And Sidney Crosby has truly been a winner on the ice and winner, like Super Mario, in helping to save the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
Not an All-Star non-starter.
Confident. A leader. Seeing Sid the Kid growing up in front of us while sitting at center stage on the ice and in front of a throng of media a couple of times leading up to the biggest game of his life Friday, Crosby had the look of a champion. His answers were well thought out, even on the fly -- more than just stick-handling around the obvious. He looked like a leader and sounded like one as well.
"All the big games you play, you try to draw on the experiences," he said succinctly. "Hopefully, this is where it shows through individually and as a team."
On playing in a winner-take-all Game 7, he added, "We've all dreamed of having this opportunity. What I remember the most about the Stanley Cup is the previous captains who have lifted the Cup. I remember when I was really young seeing my favorite team win it -- Montreal in 1993. Also, I'll never forget seeing Doug Weight lift the Stanley Cup with a separated shoulder and barely getting the Cup over his head. That's the kind of determination you need to win.
"You want to go in there and make sure you've done everything to prepare. Then you just go out there and you've got to empty the tank."
You can see and feel the passion in his voice. His vision seems never-ending, on the ice and off.
"I don't accept being average," he said -- and then added, "I have to be one play ahead."
Like Gretzky, or Lemieux.
"To me, what has been overlooked is how young he is and what he's accomplished in such a short period of time at such a young age," said former Penguins GM Ray Shero.
Crosby was caught a little off-guard by the question of his place in the game, considering it was less than four short years ago that he was chosen by the Penguins.
"Honestly, I don't think I was even close to looking this far ahead," he responded about his draft-day marathon of interviews and contemplation.
Place in history. Crosby's still having too much fun at 28 years of age. Tomorrows are clearly on his side.
It's like the rite of spring to compare one great athlete to another or look at the evolution chain, you know, wondering where this player is compared to, say, Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux or ...
There's no truer measuring stick than winning championships to crown the next star a great or a legend. And comparisons are the nature of the beast.
Yet to spend any time with Crosby is to understand that, when cornered, he can laugh, cry, and make his feelings known as honestly as anyone. He wept when he returned home to Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, with the Stanley Cup and he was eloquent in describing hockey's hold.
"I saw a six-year old kid clapping and going nuts when the Cup was going by ... and then I remember seeing a 90-year-old lady sitting under an umbrella doing the exact same thing," Crosby remembered the parade after the Penguins won it all. "That right there said it all: From the youngest kid dreaming and wanting to play to a lady who's still following it to this day -- maybe because her brother played or because -- who knows? -- maybe she played herself. Everyone has a connection to hockey. That's what we love and are crazy about."
"He's like Mario and Wayne," Florida GM Dale Tallon said. "Those guys have tremendous vision and see the ice better than anyone. ... Crosby never makes a bad pass, and they're tough passes. He's in the corner and, bang, it's across the ice and on a guy's stick in front of the net. He's really, really, really creative."
I wondered if it's fair to say Crosby is less confident in his finishing ability than other parts of his game.
"I don't think less confident. No," he said. "I like my chances around the net. I believe in myself. I know I'm capable of scoring goals. But I also know that a lot of times my first instinct is to pass because that's what's more natural to me. I mean, trying to see the ice, trying to read plays, I'm looking where other guys are. Sometimes I probably should be looking at the net or looking to find a shooting lane.
"I think that's something you have to learn with experience and having that mentality. With time, I'll get better at that."
"Crosby's very similar to Wayne," says retired Rangers general manager Glen Sather, who coached the Great One for nine seasons at the start of Gretzky's NHL career. "Same kind of vision. Crosby sees the ice as well as anybody. And I've seen Crosby do amazing things, like Wayne. He's feisty and that's what I like about him too. Wayne was feisty in his way but not like this guy."
Or, as big Chris Pronger put it: "Guys like that find a way."
From a near impossible angle near the goal line before Sidney Crosby crashes into the end boards.