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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED April 23, 2007
THE PLAYOFF EDUCATION OF A HOCKEY PRODIGY began long before a puck was dropped shortly after 7 p.m. on April 11, 2007. Sidney Crosby, you see, has already won a Stanley Cup. This one happened to have a bucket for a base and a bowl for a top and was wrapped in aluminum foil. On frostbitten Sundays in central Quebec on the backyard rink of assistant coach Donald Dufresne, Crosby and his Rimouski junior hockey teammates would gather for fierce games of two-on-two to decide their "Cup" champion.
Crosby, 19, made his formal playoff debut last week wearing a snappy white Penguins sweater in a 20,000-seat arena, his team suffering a 6-3 embarrassment at the hands of the Ottawa Senators in the opener of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Pittsburgh, with 13 players appearing in their first NHL postseason game, wanted to test the waters but wound up being hauled into the deep end by the relentless Senators, who took a 2-0 lead in the first seven minutes and physically abused the Penguins throughout. By the count of Pittsburgh assistant G.M. Chuck Fletcher, Crosby was knocked down six or seven times.
Scoring on a power play with 49 seconds left in the game was little consolation. "[The first game] was average," said Crosby. "And I don't accept being average.... I have to be one play ahead. And at times I wasn't. No doubt I have better in me."
With 120 points during the season, Crosby became the first teenager to win a scoring title in any of the four major North American professional leagues. But his hockey gift is so singular and his hunger for excellence so feral that ultimately he will be judged not by mere goals or assists but by how many Cups his team wins and how quickly it wins them.
In a memorable tableau captured on the CBC telecast of Game 1, Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts and Crosby, from left to right, were leaning over the boards in front of the Penguins' bench with bowed heads during a stoppage in the final minute of Game 1. Recchi is 39, Roberts is 40, and in 38 seasons combined, they had played in 249 playoff games before this one and won three Cups. As the camera lingered on "two old farts and a young leader," as Recchi later characterized it, the bobbing head on the right made it clear who was offering the opinions.
"He was talking to us," Roberts said. "And he's a talker. He likes to show you on the board where he wants you to be."
Crosby had commandeered assistant coach Mike Yeo's board after the first shift of Game 1, scribbling directional arrows as Roberts, his regular left wing, watched. Crosby had grown accustomed to diagramming plays during the season when he had been flanked by Evgeni Malkin, whose limited English makes him perfect for this sort of pedagogy, but even Roberts knows he benefits by chalk talks from a player this prescient and prepared. Ottawa had tweaked its defensive coverage; Sid was merely taking note.
"At the end of the game I was basically telling them, 'I don't know about you guys, but it's no fun to lose,' " Crosby said. " '[It's] over with, so let's just make sure we're ready for the rest of the series.' "
In the education of a hockey prodigy, school is still in session.