When Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins visited Southern California last December, he ranked 86th in scoring and his star-studded team was stuck in the middle of the NHL pack.
Crosby, twice a league scoring champion and twice an Olympic gold medalist, looked shockingly ordinary. The Penguins, expected to be a powerhouse, appeared to be headed nowhere after losses to the Kings and the Ducks. Impatient fans began searching for the next Sidney Crosby, convinced the current model was outmoded.
According to the calendar, that visit was not quite 11 months ago. By another measure, it was one coaching change and one Stanley Cup championship ago for the Penguins and two major MVP awards ago for Crosby, who finished third in scoring last season and isn’t ceding anything to anyone.
“Things can change pretty quickly both ways and that’s one thing you understand in hockey, that you can’t take anything for granted,” he said Wednesday. “But that’s just kind of the way the game is sometimes. You can’t predict everything, but I would agree this is a much different position than we were in a year ago.”
There’s an understatement.
The Penguins, reshaped into speed demons after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach on Dec. 12, were a confident team when they returned to Southern California to face the Ducks on Wednesday and the Kings on Thursday. Crosby, who followed his playoff MVP exploits by winning the same honor in Canada’s World Cup triumph, missed the first six games this season after experiencing concussion symptoms, a worrisome time because of his concussion history. But his assist in the Penguins’ 5-1 victory Wednesday gave him four goals and six points in four games, showing that he’d hardly missed a beat.
“He’s one of the few guys who can do that because of his conditioning,” Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford said. “He just had one full-contact practice with the team and came back in as if he hadn’t missed a day.”
Ducks right wing Corey Perry, Crosby’s World Cup and Olympic teammate, has seen Crosby’s work ethic up close and marvels at it.
“He’s a heck of a hockey player and he puts in a lot of work, a lot of time, and he takes care of himself,” Perry said. “When you see a guy like that, the talent and all the accolades he’s accomplished over the years, to still do that and still want to be the best player in the world speaks volumes for the kind of guy he is.”
Crosby is tough on himself, always seeing areas where he and his team can improve. The Penguins can clean up some things defensively and give up fewer scoring chances, he said, but he was happy with their ability to find ways to win despite those flaws and despite having lost several players to injuries. They’ve shown character, a solid complement to the self-assurance they gained from their success last season.
“I think there’s a certain level of belief especially given the fact that a big chunk of our team is returning,” he said. “We’ve all shown that we can play a certain way. It doesn’t mean it’s going to pick up right away from June but we can definitely get to that point.
“There’s always that fine line between being confident but also evaluating yourself the right way, too. I think we just trust each other and trust each other’s game and try to make sure we’re getting better. But it helps that there’s a lot of guys in here who have played together in the past and that we’ve done it.”
Their balance and speed give them a good chance to repeat as champions, a feat no team has pulled off since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Crosby knows how difficult that is, having played on the Penguins’ 2009 Cup team, but a second straight title isn’t his prime concern now.
“The one thing you can’t do is look that far ahead,” he said. “I don’t think this time last year we were necessarily looking at the Stanley Cup Finals, and things worked out OK. You just have to look at it short-term and make sure you’re getting better and evaluate yourself as a group. ... I think looking that far ahead would probably be the worst thing we could do.”
As for that search for the next Crosby, hold off. This one is still pretty good.
“And will be for some time, because of his preparation and his determination,” Rutherford said. “He’s taken such good care of himself. We know there’s players that get to a certain point in their careers and they start to drop a little bit, but that is a number of years away for Sid.”