Jot down the time for history's sake: 10:45 p.m., June 12, 2009. The Stanley Cup was awarded and the torch was passed, all in one motion, to a 21-year-old who has been in the public eye so long that he was a personage before he was truly a person. ¶ Sidney Crosby hoisted the famous 35-pound trophy, marking the first extended sighting of the Penguins captain on Joe Louis Arena ice since five-plus minutes into the second period of Game 7, when, during a race for the puck near the boards in the neutral zone, Detroit's Johan Franzen pinned him against the dasher. Crosby glided haltingly to the bench on his right skate, grimacing, while most in the crowd of 20,066 roared approvingly—schadenfreude is a predictable response with the Cup on the line. He was half-carried to the dressing room or, possibly, to Lourdes, because he was back on the bench for the third period. (Apparently one numbing injection and a handful of painkillers are the secular equivalent of holy water.) Crosby did make a 32-second cameo on the ice midway through the period, but because he could neither stop nor turn on his injured left knee, and skating only in straight lines against Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk is a recipe for disaster, he became a cheerleader.
"This is probably not the way you dream about it," Trina Crosby, his mother, would say later as the celebration swirled on the ice, "but we're taking it."
The Penguins dethroned the Red Wings in Detroit's aging barn 2--1, and the final minutes seemed like hours to a man with the worst seat in the house. "I don't recommend anyone trying to watch a Stanley Cup finals Game 7 from the bench," Crosby says. In a micro sense his play in the finals was hardly stirring: one goal and two assists in the seven games, a -3 rating, a 49.1 face-off percentage. But in the broadest sense he delivered as no one else ever had. Four seasons into his NHL career Crosby led a team to a championship, becoming the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup winner. Wayne Gretzky needed five years. Pittsburgh co-owner Mario Lemieux, who wept when the game ended, took seven. "When you have Sid," Lemieux said later, "anything is possible."
In a series that ranked with the 1971 Canadiens' comeback against the Blackhawks and the '94 Rangers' drought-ending championship as the best post-1967 expansion finals—it featured a riveting head-to-head matchup between Crosby and Zetterberg, six games decided by one or two goals, and Pittsburgh's climb out of a two-games-to-none hole to become just the third team to win Game 7 of a finals on the road—Crosby again distinguished himself as a grand player, if not precisely the one once advertised. He is not a crazy-good, numbers-mad reincarnation of Gretzky. Although Crosby finished with a playoff-leading 15 goals and added 16 assists, he was a spare part in the Penguins' 2--1 Game 6 win and a damaged part in the finale. Of course, unlike Evgeni Malkin, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner who had 36 points in 24 games, Crosby had to spend the finals playing against Zetterberg and later Zetterberg and Datsyuk plus Detroit's No. 1 defense pairing of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski. (Red Wings coach Mike Babcock's choice to continually match his heavyweights against Crosby confirmed that the captain is Pittsburgh's fulcrum, Malkin the complement.) But even with middling numbers in the finals, Crosby emerged as a never-take-a-shift-off leader, the hardest worker in every Penguins practice, a man utterly consumed. The morning after Game 3 he enlisted high energy forward Maxime Talbot to help him practice starts and stops.
"Everything he does is about hockey," Talbot says. "Yes, he's not flashy like other players in the NHL, and maybe the media think he's boring ... but he loves the game."
As Crosby revealed himself during the fortnight, so did the inherent nature of his sport. The NHL isn't the NBA. Crosby isn't LeBron. There is no demand that he touch the puck each time down the ice or always take the last shot. And with a 251-day season down to 60 minutes and Crosby indisposed for much of it, Pittsburgh needed another player to lay the foundation for the first road win of the finals.
The 25-year-old Talbot, son of a construction worker, was the natural choice.
If Crosby and Malkin are the faces and future of the Penguins, Talbot is the soul and funny bone. "I spent a ton of time with him this year and learned a lot from him," says defenseman Philippe Boucher, who is 11 years older than Talbot. "He taught me to always be positive, to work hard, to enjoy the game. People think he can be a goofball at times, but...." The previous season Talbot embraced the challenge of rooming on the road with Malkin, whose English was then a few verbs short of rudimentary. Now they are linemates, and on the bench Talbot will sometimes bump Malkin with his shoulder in a sophomoric effort to coax a smile from the Russian. Malkin returned the favor after Game 3—Talbot had two goals in a 4--2 win—when he said of Talbot during a press conference, "Little bit bad hands ... but it's O.K., he learn over summer"—an unexpected jibe that sent Talbot, sitting beside him, into a spasm of laughter. The bad-hands guy scored both Penguins goals in Game 7. After Malkin disrupted a pass by Detroit defenseman Brad Stuart deep in the offensive zone 73 seconds into the second period, Talbot slipped the puck between Chris Osgood's pads. He would rifle the Cup winner over Osgood's glove on a textbook two-on-one midway through the period when the Detroit goalie seemed to lose his angle. "No, [Malkin's] still right about that," Talbot said late Friday night. "Scoring two goals doesn't make [me] a better stickhandler."
Talbot's nickname is the Gamer, earned because the hockey gods smile on him as broadly as he smiles back. In the last minute of Game 5 of the 2008 finals against Detroit, former coach Michel Therrien sent Talbot over the boards as an extra attacker—when he got the tap Talbot thought, I'm sorry ... me?—and he scored to force overtime and prolong the series. In Game 6 of the first round this spring in Philadelphia, the Penguins trailed 3--0 when Talbot picked a second-period fight with the Flyers' larger, nastier Daniel Carcillo. Talbot took a beating, but the scrap energized Pittsburgh, which rallied to eliminate its rival. "Max isn't the most skilled guy in the world," defenseman Brooks Orpik says, "but his heart is as big as it gets."
Talbot's most conspicuous success has been with Penguins goalie Marc-André Fleury. Last season Talbot began exchanging mock punches with the highly skilled but skittish goalie in the runway before they took the ice, faux sparring sessions that might have tickled Muhammad Ali, who attended Game 7 decked out in a Red Wings jersey. (Note to NBA: The NHL sees your Jack Nicholson and raises you one Greatest of All Time.) Now Talbot merely gets inches from the goalie's mask, bouncing and swaying with him to the arena music and having a dialogue in French that is more Care Bears than Flaubert. "We always say the same thing," Talbot says. "We talk a little about life ... about the game coming up. About our families watching us at home. 'Be proud to play. We're lucky to be here.' That's what we say."