PITTSBURGH (TNS) – Sidney Crosby saw the entire play – a faceoff win to Kris Letang, who passed the puck forward to Conor Sheary for the winning goal – unfold in his head in the moments before it took place on the ice.
Even though he has yet to score a goal, Crosby’s fingerprints are all over the Stanley Cup Final, which the Penguins lead, 2-0. From his assist to set up Sheary’s goal in Game 1 to the orchestration of the overtime goal Wednesday night, Crosby seems intent on using this series as a stage to re-stake his claim as the best hockey player in the world.
“It’s as good as I’ve seen him play,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, who until this year had coached against Crosby as the head coach of the Boston Bruins and as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks.
Crosby’s offensive brilliance has surfaced in big moments throughout these playoffs. His three goals in the Eastern Conference final against the Lightning were all winners, one in overtime.
Beyond just the offense, though, Sullivan praised Crosby’s all-round game. After the Penguins’ Game 2 win, he called Crosby “a horse” for the Penguins in these playoffs.
“He’s a threat every time he’s on the ice,” Sullivan said. “He’s playing the game the right way. He plays a complete game, the full sheet. He wins faceoffs. He’s great on the puck battles. He can defend.”
He also tends to get under the skin of opponents. Crosby is routinely public enemy No. 1 in opposing arenas, receiving a chorus of boos when the starting lineups are announced.
But after Game 2, that animosity seemed to creep into the Sharks locker room, where center Logan Couture accused Crosby of cheating on faceoffs. He won 71 percent of his faceoffs in Game 2, including the pivotal one in overtime.
Crosby has not spoken publicly in response, but Sullivan said Thursday that it didn’t merit a conversation.
“Sid’s not doing anything that their guys aren’t doing,” Sullivan said. “Quite honestly, it really isn’t worthy of a response.”
Crosby is, however, doing some things that few players in the world can do. He has taken this group of young Penguins – many of whom were called up from Wilkes-Barre around midseason – to the within two victories of the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup.
“He’s a great leader,” Sullivan said. “He takes charge of his line, he takes charge of situations on the ice. You can see the interaction that he has with his teammates both on the ice, on the power play, on the bench, in between periods.”
That was true in the moments before Sheary’s overtime goal Wednesday night. Few players have benefited more from Crosby’s leadership than Sheary, the 23-year-old rookie out of Massachusetts.
When Sheary was first called up to the Penguins in December, he recalled a bit of intimidation while playing on a line with Crosby, a tendency to always try to siphon the puck to Crosby’s stick.
“The first time I got on his line he told me I was there for a reason, I was playing with him for a reason, don’t look off a shot to make a pass to him,” Sheary said. “Even though he says that, it’s a little hard to get used to.”
He’s used to it now, with a pair of goals coming off Crosby assists in the first two games of the final.
“At this point, he’s just my teammate and he’s my linemate,” Sheary said. “I’m comfortable playing with him.”
Comfortable enough that when Crosby skates over to tell Sheary and Letang about exactly what’s going to happen after a faceoff in the offensive zone in overtime, they listen.
“He’s probably the best player in the world,” Letang said. “So I think we should believe in him.”