Sidney Crosby has inspired extreme emotions among hockey fans since the Pittsburgh Penguins won the post-lockout draft lottery in 2005 and chose him first overall, fueling their rise from the dregs to a model franchise that on Sunday can win its second straight Stanley Cup championship.
Much of the criticism stems from jealousy among fans whose teams have been embarrassed by Crosby or the Penguins while he won two scoring titles, two most valuable player awards, two Rocket Richard trophies as the league's top goalscorer, and led the Penguins to the Cup in 2009 and 2016. It didn't help that early in his career he often complained to the officials, flouting hockey's prized principle of stoicism in the face of insult, injury or injustice.
The NHL and its TV partners promoting him as a singular star conflicted with the game's team-first ethic and spawned perceptions the league favored him and the Penguins, though it's hardly his fault he was anointed the marketable face of the NHL.
Long ago nicknamed "Sid the Kid," Crosby will turn 30 in August. He no longer whines, and his career has been interrupted several times by worrisome concussions. People love him: Jerseys with his name and number 87 were the top-selling jerseys during the regular season, according to the NHL.
People also hate him: A petition was started on change.org to eject him from the Stanley Cup Final after he threw a water bottle from the bench and repeatedly pushed the head of Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban against the ice as they tussled during Game 5, a 6-0 rout by the Penguins. And he's still reviled in Ottawa after his unpenalized slash to the hand of Marc Methot nearly severed the Senators defenseman's fingertip during the regular season, but Crosby is often on the receiving end of similar whacks and hacks.
Like him or loathe him, this much is clear: Crosby can still dominate — on his first shift in Game 5 he sliced through Nashville's defense for a shot that hit the post and drew a penalty, leading to their first goal — he's still passionate, and he makes his teammates better. That's the definition of a winner.
"He's always had the motivation to be, maybe, the best-working hockey player out there, somebody who's going out there to drive your team in any way, in every facet that he can," left wing Chris Kunitz, his frequent linemate, said Saturday. "He's a guy that's always worked on his game to become a better player."
Crosby is the top scorer in the Final with seven points, on one goal and six assists, and a candidate for playoff MVP. As the Penguins' captain he will get the Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman if they win Sunday at Bridgestone Arena, where the Predators are 9-1 and gain energy from a roaring, adoring crowd. If the Final continues to go according to home ice, Game 7 will be played Wednesday at Pittsburgh. "We've given ourselves an opportunity, but it's what we do with it," Crosby said. "It's about going out and playing your best game when it means the most."
Crosby did that in Game 5, earning three assists and creating many dangerous scoring chances. "He's one of the best players, or the best player, in the world so we've got to make sure we play him hard each shift," Predators defenseman Roman Josi said. "If he gets too much space he's going to make you pay." Or too much time. "There were a couple plays where we let him get in behind us, let him possess the puck a little more than we should have, and he's a great player. He's going to make those plays if he has that extra second," Nashville winger James Neal said.
The Predators' hopes of stopping him would be damaged if defenseman Ryan Ellis, who was injured early in the second period of Game 5 and did not return, can't play Sunday. Ellis didn't participate in an optional practice on Saturday. Compensating for injuries is nothing new for the Predators, who have overcome the long-term loss of forwards Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala. Bouncing back from losses isn't new for them, either. "When we do not have the game that we want, usually our guys respond with an effort and a game that we're a lot more proud of," Coach Peter Laviolette said. "I would expect our guys to come out and give it a good, strong performance [Sunday].
Crosby expects the same kind of performance from himself, even though this will be his 105th game of a season that began with the World Cup early last September. He played 104 games last season, which ended with him carrying the Cup around the ice at San Jose. He's not tired now.
"When you have so much to play for, so much that drives you and motivates you, you're able to handle it," Crosby said. "This time of year, playing for what we're playing for, everyone is excited."