For the Pittsburgh Penguins, this journey began on a Saturday, Oct. 4 at 2:30 in the afternoon. At least back in home in the Eastern time zone. But they were, instead, playing the Ottawa Senators at 8:30 p.m. Stockholm time, 4100 miles from home.
The journey ended roughly 241 days and eight hours later, with the pride of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, their captain, the NHL’s poster boy, Sidney Crosby, who was trumpted as The Next One, the heir apparent to Gretzky and Lemieux for what seems like decades, the player who singlehandedly saved the Penguins from a fate worse than relocation.
And where Don Quixote had Sancho Panza and Lemieux had Jagr, Crosby, of course, had the best player in the world ostensibly playing the role of sidekick. Evgeni Malkin set up Talbot’s first goal, after all, and scored eight points in seven games this series, and 14-22-36 in just 24 playoff games on the way to winning a richly deserved Conn Smythe, and was the one keeping Pittsburgh going while Crosby was off tilting at windmills.
But all along, Crosby had the numbers to back up the haughty comparisons to legends, living and otherwise. Statisticians could point to league-wide goalscoring ratios and say that if you adjusted so-and-so for such-and-such you would see that Crosby actually scored MORE than Gretzky or Lemieux ever could have hoped to, at least relatively. But the comparisons all fell short because Gretzky had more Stanley Cup victories than he knew what to do with, and Lemieux won two in a row close to 20 years ago, and because of those two facts Sid the Kid was never fit to be mentioned in the same breath as these two priors of point production, these gargantuan greats of goalscoring.
That is, of course, until tonight. History will slowly forget that Crosby caught a vicious hit from Johan Franzen midway through the second period that chased him from the game for pretty much the whole remainder of the game, and that after the hit he only had one brief shift inside of five minutes to go. History will also, however unfairly, probably gloss over the fact that it was Max Talbot who scored both of Pittsburgh’s goals in tonight’s thrilling, gripping, heart-stopping Game 7 win over the team that had beaten the Penguins in just six games last year. And over the years, the fog of memory will drift slowly over the fact that, really, he wasn’t even that good for the entirety of the series. The tide of time will slowly lap away at everything but what an excellent team Pittsburgh had this year, and what an excellent job Crosby and Danny Bylsma and all the rest did to finally climb to the top of the mountain, eroding everything but the vivid image of the picture you see above.
Because at just 21 years old, Sidney Crosby, widely regarded as the league’s last best hope for mainstream relevance, is a Stanley Cup champion.