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A rejuvenated Sidney Crosby will lead team of leaders at World Cup

Remember all that talk in the first half of last season that Sidney Crosby had too much mileage on his 28-year-old legs and was on the downside of his career?

As we’ve since seen, he just had too much Mike Johnston in his world hamstringing his style.

Once the Pittsburgh Penguins changed coaches and Mike Sullivan took the shackles off his team, Crosby thrived. By June, Crosby was back on top of his game, raising the Stanley Cup over his head in San Jose and also taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy.

By September, he will once again be Captain Canada, wearing the ‘C’ for the host nation at the upcoming World Cup of Hockey in Toronto. Just as he did for Canada at the Sochi Olympics and in the 2015 World Championships. This is a roster featuring the likes of alternate captains Jonathan Toews and Shea Weber, as well as Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton and Drew Doughty.

Those are big names and big leaders. But this is going to be Crosby’s team.

No. 87 turned 29 on Aug. 7, which just goes to show you how fast careers can go. He was just 20 when the Penguins first made the Stanley Cup final in 2008, only 21 when they won it under Dan Bylsma in 2009 and was still six months from turning 23 when he scored the Golden Goal in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

After two years riddled by concussion trouble, Crosby has combined to miss nine games over the last three seasons. He enters this season with 938 points in just 707 career games. I remember Bylsma openly laughing at the thought of Crosby being on the downside as the Sabres prepared to meet the Penguins here last February. Look at how last season went for Crosby and you see why.

Crosby had no points in eight of the first nine games and had just nine points in his first 18 games. He had a minus-10 rating by Thanksgiving. By the end of the season? Crosby had 36 goals, 49 assists, 85 points and a plus-19 rating.

From Feb. 1 to the end of the season, Crosby had 44 points in 33 games and a plus-24 rating. Then he threw in 19 points in 24 playoff games. Talk about clutch performances.

That’s what Canada will need in this tournament. Like it is in every international affair, the pressure will be heavily on the Canadians. That’s especially true with all games to be held in Toronto.

There will be stars all over the map in the World Cup. The biggest is Crosby. He has regained the mantle as the No. 1 player in the world again. That big letter on his sweater is a tribute for all he has done in the past, as well as where he still stands in the game today.

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Sabres goalie Robin Lehner made a prudent decision to pull out of the tournament and get ready for the regular season in the wake of his March ankle surgery. While Team Sweden officials raised red flags here by saying Lehner is not yet 100 percent, the fact of the matter is he has been working out regularly in Buffalo this summer in HarborCenter. And Henrik Lundqvist is going to get the bulk of the action, if not all of it, in Sweden’s net.

It made more sense for Lehner to sit this one out and stay in Buffalo. He’s the key X-factor player to get the Sabres into the playoffs this year and staying in a consistent workout program and being at training camp from the beginning clearly should be more important to him.

It will be very interesting to watch the World Cup rosters and see which players pull out due to injury – or the simple desire to be ready for their NHL seasons like Lehner. That appears to be the case for Dallas’ Jamie Benn (Canada) and St. Louis’ Alex Steen (Sweden), both of them said no to the Cup so they could be ready for their teams in October.

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The calendar still says it’s August so it’s a little hard to ponder the thought that training camps for the tournament start in one week. On Sept. 5, Jack Eichel will be among those gathering in Montreal for Team North America, joining the likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Aaron Ekblad, Nathan MacKinnon and Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Matt Murray.

Crosby and Team Canada work out in Ottawa. Finland, featuring Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, will open workouts in Helsinki. Russia, whose roster includes new Buffalo defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, will work out in St. Petersburg. South Buffalo’s Patrick Kane will among those working out for Coach John Tortorella at the Team USA camp in Columbus.

Ristolainen is one of a handful of unsigned restricted free agents who are expected to play in the tournament despite their contract status, as the NHL and NHLPA are combining to insure those players. The list also includes Team North America duo Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary) and Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg) and Russia winger Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay).

Teams would certainly prefer their players to be signed before heading to the tournament and it will be interesting to watch if things progress with those four players this week.

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What set social media ablaze about the Cup last week? It was when the New Jersey Devils tweeted a picture of goaltender Cory Schneider’s new leg pads for the tournament.

Schneider, who will be battling Ben Bishop and Jonathan Quick for playing time on Team USA, will be wearing customized Vaughn pads with white stars on a blue field on the upper half of his legs, and red and white stripes on the bottom half. They are as slick as that sounds.

Schneider is no stranger to such super eye-popping wear. He showed up in Nashville for the All-Star Game with custom pads featuring crossed acoustic guitars as a tribute to Music City.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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