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Sidney Crosby's legacy in Stanley Cup Final spotlight

Love him or hate him, Sidney Crosby will be under the microscope in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

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The Stanley Cup Final is at last upon us, the Sharks and Penguins are about to be upon each other, and the keepers of history and the Hockey Gods are about to be upon Sidney Crosby and this strange brew his team has going on at the moment. Yes, it's legacy time, baby!

Crosby is easily the biggest name in the series, the name even the non-hockey head recognizes, if not necessarily the key player. Ironically enough.      

Let’s play a quick game: After which year of his NHL career could Sidney Crosby have retired and been a surefire Hall of Famer? Don’t forget, he’s been around long enough that he was a teammate of Mario Lemieux. I’m going to say after the 2009-10 season, Crosby’s fifth. He’d won his only Cup to date the year before, reached the final the year before that, had four 100+ point seasons, won an Art Ross Trophy, and a Hart. He was 22 years old.

Crosby hasn’t been back to the Promised Land until now, and he’s become more polarizing every year, but with some consistencies in terms of who hates him and who prefers to fete him.

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Canadians tend to like Crosby, seeing in him their generational star who scores Golden Goals and reminds us that Canada is the supreme hockey power. Americans, other than Penguins fans, cannot stand him. They see a whiner, a guy who disappears for large chunks of games, then has the temerity to mince his way into the slot in OT after underperforming for a couple periods and roof the puck to end the game.

And then there is his endless chirping at referees, something Crosby engages in with the zeal of that annoying sparrow who gets his ass up early on the first day of spring just so he can have the stage all to himself for a bit before the other birds get going.

I’m an American and I like Crosby. I get the chirpy routine, more or less. I’m all for giving him a pass there. Well, a begrudging pass, because chirping is basically automatically annoying, even when the chirper in question is in the right. Great players see the game differently, with greater clarity and refulgence, and if someone like, say, David Ortiz thinks the ball is a quarter inch off the black, I’m more inclined to believe him and understand his frustration when the umpire's call goes the other way.

You watch something like Game Seven of the Pens' Eastern finals series with the Lightning and you see Crosby shoulder-by-shoulder with coach Mike Sullivan at the front of the bench, arguing for a call in the final seconds, and you do wonder who the coach is, or who thinks he’s the coach. Is it some kind of 1A/1B deal? And you also note that Crosby tends not to be on the ice in these crucial situations when the Pens don’t need a goal and they’re trying to finish it out. That’s telling.

Ditto that the Penguins got here with Mike Sullivan, their third coach in two years, and a classic “just another guy” figurehead. 

2016 Stanley Cup Final preview: Sharks vs. Penguins

The Penguins never should have required seven games to boot the Lightning out of the tourney, and they made it as close as they did because of Sullivan’s decision to start Marc-André Fleury in a game, despite the fact that he hadn’t played in two months, and has always been a head case in big games even when he was at his best. The TV talking heads were more or less in alignment with this move, which blew my mind, and made me wonder if Crosby might have had something to do with advocating for his buddy Fleury.

The recent NHL has taught us that goalies are becoming more akin to running backs. That is, you can find one. You can always find one. You don’t need to draft super high, you don’t need to overpay in free agency. Twenty-three-year old Matt Murray has been the guy for the Penguins, and if they win the Cup, it’ll be in large part because of his stabilizing presence. On the road to Exit 16W, to borrow a phrase from the Ray Bourque parlance, you need a horse to get you to those 16 wins. One guy, not a rotation, not one guy spelling other guy. It ain’t the Billy Smith/Roland Melanson era anymore.

Any goalie who is playing 20 or 25 postseason games, will have a clunker or two. Some nights, even in an MVP season, Steph Curry is going to shoot 8 for 28. The key is when you have your clunkers, and how you rebound from them. When you’re bad, be bad in the first game of the series. Be bad when your team is up 2-1. Don’t be bad when you’re down 3-2. And then steal the game for your team the next time out.

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That’s been been Murray, and that will likely be the Murray we will see in this final. But Crosby will be the player on the microscope slide, though, and while I was one of those people who equivocated in the past over whether it was he or Alex Ovechkin who is the player of his age, I can’t stump for Ovie anymore. So you’re in the clear there, Sid. Ovechkin is a very rich man’s Tim Kerr with greater longevity. The best goal scorer ever. And absolutely nothing else. I can’t ever see him winning unless it’s later in his career as a complementary player, like Marian Hossa. He’s not the guy, he never will be the guy. But I’m also not sure that Crosby is the guy, either.

There have been plenty of playoff nights when Evgeni Malkin has been the Penguins' best forward. Plenty of nights where he has affected the flow and tenor of the game, and Crosby has been MIA. Malkin will do something stupid often enough if you get your extra hits in and reach a quota of slashes on the back of his legs, whereas Crosby will watch and wait. Malkin does the heavy lifting, the cycling in the corner, the hard charges from off the wing. Crosby floats, circles, sizes up. I’m not really sure that two forwards, on the same team, on different lines, have ever had so symbiotic a relationship.

Come the end of the game, Malkin will have taken two dumb penalties, and Crosby will be poised to do something heroic that Canadians will love and Americans will be sickened by.

Joe Thornton, over on the Sharks, is an even better passer than Crosby, and you could securely put both players in the top 10 of all-time. Jumbo is at the end of his career, though still a force, and more of a force this year than in the past handful, and likely getting his first and only chance at the Cup. He is also a first ballot Hall of Famer to be.

But legacies are weird, and what things mean from player to player are weird. I’m sure Thornton wants the Cup greatly. But he also strikes me as a guy who’d be cool without one, who would recover from the blow of the loss, and with his legacy not really being influenced one way or the other. He will be remembered for dishing loads and loads of helpers for a long time. Thornton wants Cups; Crosby needs them.

Some guys plan every last portion of their public image, and other guys give off the vibe that they do. You never know if they really do. But you feel like they do. LeBron is like this. Alex Rodriguez is like this. Kobe. Crosby is like this. They know the history. Crosby knows that he’s now been to more Cup finals than Lemieux. He knows that Lemieux’s Penguins choked away the 1993 Cup by losing to the Islanders in the second round, maybe he knows that if Ulf Samuelsson doesn’t take out Cam Neely in 1991, Super Mario and Co. probably don’t get a chance to take on the North Stars.

The cynic might say that Crosby has an element of Lady Macbeth in him and doesn’t care how he gets his mitts on the goods. Former scrub of a goalie carries us? Cool. Fleury can come back next year. Evgeni does a lot of stuff and then I do a few things? Ha ha, the Captain is first to hoist the Cup! Sid the Kid!

I’m not saying he actually thinks like that. And he probably doesn’t refer to himself in the third person via a rhyming moniker. It just sort of looks that way. Not that appearances get engraved on the side of Lord Stanley’s mega-chalice. But if they did … wait, that’s not fair. We’ll see what happens, and then we’ll watch how the attendant factions on both sides of the 49th parallel react, and if the Hockey Gods are moved to dip their quills and posit Crosby as one of the great winners. Me, I like him, but I still don’t think I’d buy it.