After the Penguins’ victory against the Flames on Wednesday, Sidney Crosby sat at his locker, chatting with a couple of reporters.
He commented that the Penguins’ schedule worked out perfectly this weekend. Good Canadian boy that he is, Crosby expressed joy that he can watch Team Canada’s World Cup game on Sunday morning in peace because the Penguins are off that day.
A couple of games must be played before the king of hockey rests on Sunday, of course. One in particular always seems to get his attention.
When Crosby was reminded that his team’s next game is in the eastern region of the commonwealth, the postgame smile on his face disappeared for just a moment. The Flyers have a way of getting Crosby’s attention. Philadelphia has a way of getting his attention.
Crosby will play against the Flyers for the 81st time on Friday. He’s scored 50 goals against them, more than any other team. And if he has another big game against them, should anyone be surprised?
The Penguins’ captain enters the game with 27 points in 20 games this season. He’s on pace for 111 points, which would be good for the second-most points he’s ever scored in an NHL season. The player who was staggeringly precocious as a teenager when he immediately dominated the NHL is now becoming noteworthy for his remarkable staying power. He’s already been named the NHL’s No. 1 star (I’m old enough to remember when we just called this Player of the Week … life seemed a little more simple then) twice this season.
Players aren’t supposed to look like this at age 35.
Not after 18 NHL seasons, 1,128 games, three (at least) concussions and enough physical abuse to last about 10 hockey lifetimes.
But then, we must remind ourselves that Crosby isn’t any kind of normal player. He is among the greatest players in the history of the sport, and the truly great ones age more gracefully than the others.
His previous general manager, Jim Rutherford, once told me this about Crosby: “He’s getting older, yes. But the great ones are still great when they’re old, because they’re great. They age differently. He’s one of those guys. And he’s not old yet. He’s just getting older.”
Rutherford was right. We shouldn’t be surprised that Crosby is still operating at this level. His conditioning regimen is the stuff of legend, nutrition and training standards are helping athletes peak for longer periods of time and, well, he’s great.
The early stages of Crosby’s age-35 season are lining up pretty nicely with his all-time peers.
Mario Lemieux set the gold standard for age-35 seasons when he came out of a 3 1/2 year retirement at 35 and promptly produced 76 points in 43 games. He set the bar pretty high, but others have also done marvelous things at this age.
Wayne Gretzky put up 97 points in 82 games during his first season with the Rangers in his age-35 season. Gordie Howe, in a time when 35 was really ancient — granted, age didn’t really apply much to him — managed 73 points in 69 games when he was 35.
The early days of Penguins’ training camp back in September made it exceptionally clear that Crosby’s physical skills remained intact. The speed, power and precision were all there, just as they always had been.
An old teammate and coach of his thinks Crosby will keep doing this for a while.
“Look at how he’s built,” Mark Recchi said. “That’s probably why I played so long, that thick build. Look at Phil Kessel. That’s why Phil never gets hurt. He’s thick. Look at Sid. Look at how Ovi (Alex Ovechkin) is still playing. Patrick Marleau. Joe Thornton. These are all people with extremely thick builds. That’s one of the reasons Sid is still close to the identical player that he was 10 years ago.”
Crosby will tell you that the NHL is harder than it’s ever been, that third-pairing defensemen nowadays could skate circles around the third-pairing defensemen who were playing in the league when he arrived in 2005.
And yet, he still dominates, even as he’s become one of the old guys in the league, and even as the league keeps getting better and faster.
How does he keep doing it?
There are many reasons.
- His conditioning, as noted early, remains truly elite.
- Crosby thinks the game like Lemieux and Gretzky did, which will keep him productive even when his skills do diminish.
- His competitive fire is rare.
That last nugget really is what sets him apart. Lemieux and Gretzky enjoyed winning a great deal and have the championship rings to prove it. But they weren’t possessed to win the way Crosby is. That’s not a knock on them. It’s a compliment to Crosby, who craves winning like no athlete I’ve ever been around.
In a rare glimpse of his age, Crosby actually went into a slump a couple of weeks ago. In a victory in Toronto, he didn’t register a shot on goal. Then, he was oddly quiet in an overtime loss in Montreal. Then, in a rematch against the Leafs, he hit rock bottom and was a minus-4 despite scoring a goal. It was one of the worst games he ever played.
Crosby, who is his own worst critic, was furious with himself after that game. He mentioned following the Calgary game that he’d had a few bad games in his career that stood out to him, and the performance against the Leafs qualified.
And, so, how did he respond?
Two goals and two assists in a victory in Minnesota. Then two more assists in a win in Winnipeg. Twenty-four hours later, he followed with the game-winning goal and three assists in Chicago.
Ten points in three games on a three-game road trip — that’s how he responded.
Normal athletes don’t will themselves to that kind of performance. Even star athletes don’t do it.
Nah, only the rarest of breeds do things like that. He’s different and remains as ravenous to win as he’s ever been.
History will someday tell the story of these Penguins, and if Ron Hextall made the right move when he brought back aging players like Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Jeff Carter over the past year. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.
Yet, Hextall can’t be blamed for doing everything in his power to give Crosby more chances to win a championship. Who’s better than him right now? Connor McDavid, sure. He’s the league’s best player ever. You can make arguments for Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Maker and Leon Draisaitl.
That’s it. That’s the list. And in a playoff series, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t take Crosby over all of them. (He has 22 even-strength points in 20 games, more than all of the above mentioned players. If the Penguins ever figure out their power play, look out.)
Before a cheap shot from Jacob Trouba temporarily knocked Crosby out of last spring’s playoffs, he had produced nine points in four games and was operating at a level that we had rarely seen. It was vintage. It was special. And it might have been enough to carry the Penguins on a legitimate Stanley Cup run.
We know how that season ended. This one remains a mystery. The way Crosby is going right now, however, anything feels possible.
He’s not Sid the Kid anymore. That nickname has long been put to rest.
But he’s not an old man, either. After all of these years, he’s still got it.
And for the rest of the league — including in Philadelphia today — this remains a problem.
One incredible season after another, Crosby’s legend only grows.
(Top photo of Sidney Crosby: David Banks / USA Today)