PITTSBURGH -- Penguins center Sidney Crosby is always quiet before games, but his teammates immediately noticed that he was especially self-contained when he entered their locker room Wednesday at Mellon Arena.
Crosby didn’t say a single word as he came in and got dressed, but he really didn’t have to.
The Penguins had been shut out by the Red Wings in the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals, at Detroit. A loss Wednesday in Pittsburgh, where they have been dominant in the playoffs, would have left them in an untenable position.
In hockey, the team captain is revered as in no other sport. The captain sets the tone for the team, lightening the mood if it’s too somber or providing perspective if players get too full of themselves.
A good captain leads by his deeds, not merely his words. A great one inspires his teammates to accomplish what they otherwise could not do.
Crosby, not yet 21, became a great captain Wednesday.
Not because he yelled or threw things but because he instinctively knew that if he was calm and assured, his teammates would be too, and they’d have a chance to win.
They were, and they did.
Crosby scored twice in the 3-2 victory that cut Detroit’s series lead to 2-1, but that doesn’t begin to sum up his accomplishments.
Penguins Coach Michel Therrien said he had hoped Crosby would bring his “A” game. Crosby did that, and more.
“I thought he played well the first two games but sometimes the results are not there. You can’t judge players on goals and assists,” Therrien said.
“As coaches we pay attention on different things. I thought that his work ethic was there. He stuck to the plan. That’s what you’re looking for from your captain, to show an example.”
Crosby knew that if he had panicked, the whole team might have crumbled.
If he had relented in his efforts to get to the net to set up a teammate or be in position to tip home a pass, they might have quit.
He never let up Wednesday, not when Detroit had a 9-1 lead in shots and was threatening to turn this supposed marquee finals matchup into a joke and not until the final buzzer sounded and the crowd of 17,132 let out a joyful roar.
“He’s always focused, but tonight you could see he was going to carry us,” defenseman Ryan Whitney said. “He did.”
Crosby’s first goal, scored not long after Therrien reconfigured his lines to put Crosby with Marian Hossa and a rejuvenated Evgeni Malkin, ended the team’s shutout streak at 153 minutes 22 seconds.
His second goal, at 2:34 of the second period, caught the Red Wings in a rare moment of vulnerability on defense.
“He’s our leader,” forward Maxime Talbot said. “He’s playing amazing. He’s playing his heart out.
“Yes, he’s got skills but that’s not what he brought tonight. He brought heart. He brought energy. The guy’s like a gladiator out there. It’s awesome.”
Crosby said he was silent before the game because he wanted his teammates to see he was unwilling to expend precious energy on words when he could put that energy to much better use on the ice.
He wanted to convey quiet assurance, not nervous anxiety, and he succeeded.
“You want to be quiet but you have to have a sense of confidence in the room too,” he said.
“I think we all believed that if we put our best game out there, we gave ourselves a good chance. But personally, you just want to make sure you’re leading by example and doing our job out there.”
His job description extends beyond most players’ imagination. He is one of the reasons the team is still in Pittsburgh, having a huge impact on the team’s box-office figures when the Penguins won the post-lockout draft lottery in 2005.
He is also considered the face of the NHL, one of the few hockey players who has the potential to attract casual fans and lift hockey closer to the mainstream. And for once the NHL might have lucked out, because Crosby’s memorable night was broadcast on NBC and available to viewers whose cable companies still don’t offer Versus, the league’s other U.S. TV outlet.
To Crosby, though, his primary job is being a good teammate and friend.
“He’s a guy who comes to the rink every day and when he’s here it’s almost his safe haven,” Whitney said. “He loves being here, and part of that is being around the guys.
“He’s such a good teammate. Such a good kid. He could be a prima donna or expect things done for him and yet he doesn’t.
“Tonight was one of those things where great players play their best on the biggest stage and in the biggest games, and I think he carried us tonight.”
He carried the Penguins to the Cup finals a year or two before they were expected to get this far. Now that they’re here, he isn’t ready to rest. “It feels good to come out of this game on the other side, for sure,” he said, “but we realize it’s only one.”
Spoken like a true captain who won’t be satisfied until his job is done.
Helene Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.