The Only One

Nervous? There is no kind of nervous like what a home crowd feels in overtime of a hockey game. And there were circumstances during Game 2 in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, extenuating circumstances that amplified this particular nervousness, turned it up to cold-sweat horror. First, the Penguins were trailing Tampa Bay 1-0 in the conference final; a second home loss could seriously hinder Pittsburgh’s chances of winning the Stanley Cup. Second, the Penguins had thoroughly outplayed the Lightning, especially in the third period, but they couldn’t get the puck by that stubborn 21-year-old goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy. A kid that young doesn’t know pressure. That was scary.

But third, the big one, the fans just couldn’t figure out Sidney Crosby. For a decade now, Crosby has been the rock of Pittsburgh. He has endured pressure, injuries, slumps, insults, cheap shots … and he remained the best hockey player in the world. Thing is: He had not scored a goal in 29 periods, There had been Crosby droughts before, of course, but something about this scoring drought seemed more treacherous. Crosby is 28 years old. He’s been through the strangest season of his career. And, one thing everyone knows is nothing lasts forever.

“You have to trust and believe in what you do out there,” Crosby had said, but he always said stuff like that, whether things were going well or not. He has always had the talent of being opaque. It’s hard to tell what goes on inside Sid the Kid.

The overtime period began, and people settled in for their nervousness as the puck bounced around center ice. Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin picked it up and looked — there was winger Bryan Rust skating uncovered up the middle. Only the Lightning’s Victor Hedman was back. The whole world had just opened up and Rust had a clear shot and he will tell you: When he has an open shot, he tends to take it. As Pittsburgh scribe Dejan Kovacevic would write: “He tends to play with blinders, and it can take a crowbar to pry the puck from his stick.”

Only this time, Rust heard someone yell. It was a full-throated yell. He turned and dropped a soft pass.

Sidney Crosby cracked a one-timer into the upper-left corner of the net. It was the first playoff overtime goal of his magnificent, sprawling, wonderful and haunted career. And, suddenly, it was over. All of it. The game. The nervousness. And something else felt over too.

“That goal is huge for him,” Rust would say. “It’s huge for us.”

“That’s a huge goal for our team … and that’s the perfect player to get it,” Patric Hornqvist said.

“It was a feeling for all of us,” Pittsburgh’s Justin Schultz said. “Because it was Sid.”

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What does it mean to be the “Next One?” The National Hockey League anoints and dismisses Next Ones much in the same way that “Game of Thrones” does. Eric Lindros was the original Next One, you know. That was around 1990, back when Gretzky — “The Great One,” of course — was still the game’s ultimate player, and Mario Lemieux was a force of nature all his own, and everyone wondered who might come next.

Lindros was this seemingly impossible blend of power, skill and speed — a fusion of Gretzky and Lemieux. He had a fantastic early part of his career. He won the Hart Trophy at 21 years old. He dragged and carried the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final. And then came the concussions (six of them in a 27-month stretch) and the overwhelming burden of expectations. The years wore him down. He retired at 34, and the obituaries of his career lamented what might have been.

Alexandre Daigle was such an overwhelming junior player that most believe he inspired the idea of a draft lottery in the NHL (the Ottawa Senators rather obviously tanked to get him). They called him “Alexandre the Great” before he ever played a single NHL game. He burned out by age 25. “I don’t think I was prepared to go onto a team and be the savior at 18,” Daigle said after it all ended. “Who is prepared for that?”

Every year or two, another junior hockey phenom would come along — a Jason Bonsignore or a Rico Fata or a Patrik Stefan — who was meant to dominate the game. They did not work out. USA Today called Phil Kessel “The King of Hockey Prospects.” John Tavares was so good at 15 years old that he was called “The Next Next One,” in order to beat the rush. And, of course, 19-year-old Connor McDavid is the current “Next One.”

MORE: Crosby raves about HBK line | Pens give Kessel Listerine, gum for “bad breath”

But the most overwhelming “Next One,” the player who inflamed the imagination more than any prospect since Gretzky himself, was Sidney Crosby.

“He’s dynamite,” Gretzky himself said the first time he saw Crosby play. Sid the Kid was 15 then.

It all seemed so perfect. Crosby was the archetypal hockey prodigy, the straight-A student who was beloved by his classmates, the small-town kid who liked country music and dented the family dryer after shooting so many pucks into it in the basement (whenever he missed the net, it would crash into the dryer — the basement and dented dryer would later be replicated for a Reebok commercial).

“You saw right away that this was someone who was going to change the fortunes, not only of the franchise, not only for the city, but for everyone around him,” says NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk, also Crosby’s first coach with the Penguins. “You just don’t see that. You just don’t see an 18-year-old kid that come(s) in and look(s) like he can take everybody on his back.”

And the NHL career began like a dream. He captained his first Stanley Cup champion at 21 years old. He scored the Golden Goal in the Vancouver Olympics at 22 years old. As he stood at attention while “Oh Canada” played — “the dream of every kid who grows up playing hockey in Canada” — it was clear: He was the Next One. He really was the Jean Beliveau of his time, the Gordie Howe of his time, the Bobby Orr of his time, the Wayne Gretzky of his time.

At that moment, you would have said that Sidney Crosby was charmed.

* * *

The Crosby slumps.

May 2014: Crosby has gone eight playoff games without scoring a game. “Sidney Crosby slump causing angst in Pittsburgh,” USA Today reports. “I just have to keep working hard,” he says. “We’re creating chances, so that’s good. I have to bury them.”

December 2014: Crosby has scored just 11 goals in his previous 50 games. What’s wrong? “You’ve got to find a way to bury the chances,” he says to reporters, “and I think that’s ultimately on me. I’ve got to find a way to bury my chances.”

February 2015: Crosby is fourth in the league in scoring, but has scored just four goals in 29 games. “It’s just a matter of burying chances,” Crosby says.

October 2015: Crosby is held pointless in eight of the Penguins’ first 10 games. What’s wrong? “It’s weird how it works,” Crosby tells TSN’s Pierre LeBrun. “It’s difficult to really put your finger on it. But when you’re going through a time like this, you just try to put your head down and work hard … I feel that I got some real good opportunities to score and produced some chances.”

December 2015: Crosby’s struggles are severe and the Penguins fire coach Mike Johnston and hire Mike Sullivan. While Crosby is certainly not the sole reason for the move — Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford talked about the entire team badly under-performing — it is his troubles that dominate the headlines. “We just have to work through it,” Crosby says.

May 2016: Crosby goes eight consecutive playoff games without scoring a goal, leading many people to wonder why he’s slumping. This includes NBC’s own Jeremy Roenick, who suggests that Crosby might watch Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin’s work ethic. “I’m not happy, obviously,” Crosby says. “But the big thing are the chances. I just have to keep creating chances.”

* * *

When did Sidney Crosby no longer seem charmed? That’s a trick question. Crosby never stopped being the player of his generation, the best player on the planet and so on. But the world stopped bending to his will. Again and again for the last six years, almost from the day after he returned from the Golden Goal, things got complicated for Crosby. The concussions. The testy series against the Flyers.The slapshot to the face. The helpless series against the Bruins. The shaky Pittsburgh goaltending. The losses to the Rangers.

He did not change. All along, Crosby stayed focused and positive and, yes, a bit mysterious.

“I have to just keep working hard,” Crosby repeated.

“If it doesn’t go in you just have to trust the next one will,” he said.

“I just have to bury my chances,” he said.

“I have the great fortune of knowing him on a couple of different levels,” Olczyk says. “I think he’s the same exact guy when it comes to handling things. He’s the same guy, from what I’ve seen, in how he deals with success and the same guy in how he handles going through a difficult time. And there have been difficult times, but hey, that’s the nature of this thing. Anyone can be great when on a good streak. It’s easy to be a good guy when the puck’s going in the net. How are you going to be when the s*** hits the fan? That’s one of the things that separates players. Sid is the same no matter what.”

This season has provided the greatest challenge of all. In the first 30 games, Crosby scored a total of 19 points, was a minus-7 and fired fewer than three shots per game. He looked worn out. Everybody saw it. Johnston was fired; many believed his two-way coaching — which put more pressure on Crosby to play defense — might be handcuffing him. Sports Illustrated wondered if he would be moved to Canada’s fourth line at the upcoming 2016 World Cup. The Washington Post, having dismissed Crosby as the world’s best player, listed off several others who might be ready to take his place. Bleacher Report floated the question: “Would Pittsburgh trade Crosby?”

Crosby never did blame people for their doubts. “I understand why people were saying it,” he says.

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Maybe it was Mike Sullivan who shook Crosby out of it. Sullivan was hired mid-December and, first thing, he talked to Crosby. “He told me what he expected as far as a player and as a leader,” Crosby says. “It was pretty clear, and he was very honest. That’s all you can ask.”

“I tried to challenge these guys — and Sid in particular — to play with that necessary emotion,” Sullivan says. “My experience of coaching against him for all those years was that when Sid is at his best, he’s emotionally engaged. …  When I first took the team over, my goal was to try to light that fire in his belly that makes him so great.”

The timing certainly matches up. Crosby, in the last 50 games of the regular season — more or less corresponding precisely with the hire of Sullivan — scored 66 points, the same points-per-game average of his Hart Trophy season of 2013-14. He scored 30 goals in those 50 games. his best stretch of goal scoring since he was 23 years old. He led the Penguins to 104 points, second in the Eastern Conference. Wayne Gretzky insisted that, even after the worst start of his career, Crosby was deserving of consideration for the Hart Trophy, and he is indeed one of the finalists.

Then, the playoffs began. Crosby was superb in the five-game series against the New York Rangers, scoring three goals and adding five assists, facing down all the Rangers demons of the last couple of years. But he was quiet in the Washington series. He didn’t score a single goal. He was rarely noticeable on the ice. It was reminiscent of the early-season troubles. It was also reminiscent of past playoff horrors, like the pointless series against Boston in the days after his jaw had been broken, or his near-soundless performance against New York in 2014 when the Rangers came back from a 3-1 deficit to win.

But this Washington series was not like those crushing defeats because this Penguins team is not like those Penguins teams. Rutherford completely remodeled Pittsburgh hockey. He brought in one-time phenom and longtime scapegoat Phil Kessel. “He was a guy that was blamed when things weren’t going well, and he doesn’t have to be the guy here,” Rutherford said, explaining the move. It has worked out perfectly. Kessel is the Penguins’ leading scorer in the playoffs.

Rutherford traded for the speedy Carl Hagelin, and he has been all over the ice. Rutherford traded for scrappy Nick Bonino, and he is the Penguins’ leading assist man in the playoffs. Those three, the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line has been so overwhelming, they have their own initials — the HBK line — and wrestler Shawn Michaels (who goes by HBK as “The Heartbreak Kid”) will be in attendance for Game 5.

Rutherford also traded for veteran defenseman Trevor Daley, who has been steady defensively and has helped launch some offense. This is now a much deeper team than any Crosby has played on in years. The pressure on Crosby, while still immense, has been drastically reduced. “Sid doesn’t care if he scores,” Sullivan says, “as long as we win.”

And then there’s the 21-year-old goaltender Matt Murray. He was forced into action when Marc-Andre Fleury went down and he has been mostly sensational. Unsteady goaltending has been the most frustrating piece of Crosby’s playoff disappointments, but Murray almost single-handedly won the pivotal Game 3 of the Washington series, stopping 47 of 49 shots and turning away a determined Capitals team that dominated all night long. He was just about as good in Game 4 as Pittsburgh again won a game where Crosby could not unwind.

“Best player on the ice,” Hornqvist said after Murray’s heroics, and this was something very different in Pittsburgh. Crosby was, of course, frustrated by his lack of goal scoring — assuming that you can read his occasional slamming of the stick and unhappy looks as frustration. But the Penguins won the Washington series. They lost Game 1 of the Tampa Bay series — another muted day from Crosby — but no one seemed too worried about it.

“He will find a way,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said.

And then … Crosby did find a way. He had two fantastic chances in the third period of Game 2 before scoring the overtime goal. He was all over the ice in Game 3, scoring a goal, firing six shots on net and dominating the game like Sid the Kid of old.

“We’re creating chances,” Crosby says, of course.

* * *

One final moment …

Midway through the first period Wednesday night, Sidney Crosby chased the puck behind the Tampa Bay net. It was innocuous looking, the sort of scrambling and grinding play you see a dozen times every game. Players were scattered in an unorganized way. Defenders swarmed around Crosby. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had a clear view of the puck as it slid behind the net. Nothing dangerous lurked. The crowd breathed out.

And then, suddenly, it happened. Genius. Crosby, in a motion so effortless it is unclear even after replays how he did it, reached to the puck and, without a millisecond of hesitation, passed it back through his legs. The puck obediently slid to the right of the net, just out of Vasilevskiy’s reach and onto the stick of Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist who — holy cow, where did he come from? — was all alone at the net’s doorstep.

“I can tell you,” Olczyk says, “having played at that level, you don’t sit there and think, ‘Oh, I’ll get behind the net and when I’m being checked I’ll pass the puck back through my legs.’ It’s spontaneous. It’s an idea that just forms in your brain while the play is happening. You think, ‘Hey, I’ll do this and surprise everyone.’ Some guys like Sid can get it from their brains to their hands in an absolute split second. The rest of us, it takes just a little bit of time for the idea to get to their hands. And by that time, you know … it’s too late.”

Genius. It didn’t lead to anything. Hornqvist jabbed at the puck and, for an instant, it seemed headed for the tiniest crack between Vasilevskiy’s body and the right post. But it did not get through; the puck sort of got stuck there like Winnie the Pooh after he ate too much honey. And then the whistle blew, and the action was stopped, and Sidney Crosby’s genius for this game, once again, dissolved away all but unnoticed.

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