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The day's next-biggest cheers fell upon the grinning man planted in a canary-yellow convertible. The fans knew, of course, that this party might never have happened without second banana Max Talbot, the Pittsburgh center who, with Crosby sitting out the bulk of Game 7 of the final against Detroit with a sprained left knee, sealed the Stanley Cup run with two clutch goals. But they knew, too, that wingman to greatness can be a delicate role, one Talbot pulls off with goofy, awe-puncturing charm. It's Talbot who balances Crosby's polite reserve, short-circuits any air of self-importance, who dares to finger Crosby's meticulously taped sticks before games "just to piss him off." It's Talbot who, after the Cup was won, persuaded Crosby to sit still and take in the scene, so that he would remember it forever.
"Every special talent has to be a little crazy, and he's definitely crazy," Talbot says. "You can't argue with him, you can't win an argument. And superstitious: Everything needs to be right. Every damn thing needs to be perfect. I'm sitting beside him in the dressing room for two years now, and every day you see the same thing. But I've seen him grow. He's taking it more easy ... a little bit."
Talbot was 16 the first time he saw the then 13-year-old phenom, taking it right to NHL stars Chris Chelios and Luc Robitaille at a camp in Los Angeles, blazing one slap shot right between Robitaille's legs. "It was beautiful," Talbot says.
By the time Crosby reached the NHL, in 2005, no one doubted that he was special. But he had detractors, their antennae up for any sign of ego. The 18-year-old rookie, soon to be the youngest player ever to reach 100 NHL points, had gotten into the habit of complaining to officials during his junior stint with Rimouski of the QMJHL—a surefire way to get labeled a whiner or, as legendary commentator and self-styled guardian of the Canadian Way Don Cherry puts it, "a semisweetheart.
"I had many criticisms of him at the start: When he'd get hit he'd throw his head back as if he got really corked, a semidive," Cherry says. "But now he doesn't dive, he doesn't yap at the referees. I gave it to him pretty good, but you haven't heard me give it to him lately—because he acts the way he should act. He's a good captain now."
It was no accident. Crosby flinched at the rips—and Troy sent Cherry's bosses a choice e-mail—but curbed his griping. "It's something I've tried to work on," Sidney says. "Just because you're 18 and a good player doesn't mean you're done learning. Hopefully as I get older I get better."
With his natural gifts—wide-angle vision, uncanny timing and, as former roommate Colby Armstrong, now with the Thrashers, puts it, "huge legs and a massive booty"—Crosby would've been a Hall of Famer without changing a thing. But he also gave up his beloved chocolate-chip cookies at 16 and learned French when he played in Quebec. Even with the NHL's best backhand and most explosive second gear, he has never stopped refining, pushing—not even after winning it all. This season, after clearing a key hurdle in the never-ending Greatest of All Time race by becoming the youngest NHL captain to earn the Cup, Crosby was winning face-offs at a personal-best 57.1% at week's end and is on course to score more than 40 goals for the first time.
"He's dedicated like nothing I've ever seen," says Armstrong. "It shows when he comes back to camp every year; he's got that extra step that no one else has. He plays the game right for an elite player: He can blow a game open, but he also makes other players better. He made me better, made me see outside the box with certain plays; I'd pick his brain: Such little moves. But to do it at top speed? He's an up-and-down player with an unbelievable head on his shoulders."
He also grinds, albeit with a flair that no third-liner could summon. Late in October, Talbot, recovering from shoulder surgery, sat in a skybox at Mellon Arena, spectating. It was early in the second period of an eventual win over Montreal, Crosby had already scored once (he would end the night with a hat trick) and now had drifted just outside the right side of the crease as a Pittsburgh shot clanged off the post. He snagged it facing the net but, defying the instinct to attack, instead whirled 180 degrees and—with his back to the goal and haunches keeping frantic defender Jaroslav Spacek at bay—settled the puck, lifted it on the back of his blade and sliced a low-percentage, no-look backhand high into the righthand corner of the goal. Between the post, the crossbar and two flailing arms, Crosby had given himself a target no bigger than a salad plate to aim for, blindfolded.
"Ohhh: See?" Talbot shouted. "Every day, in everything he does, he wants to be perfect." He laughed. "But that is crazy."