PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby won his first Stanley Cup in 2009 at age 21. But for seven years after, the Pittsburgh Penguins came up short and never got back to the Cup final, ditching both Dan Bylmsa and Mike Johnston as coaches along the way. Worse yet, Crosby's career seemed doomed by concussions.
Now think back to the last 12 months of Crosby's career. Yes, there have been two more concussion scares -- including what looked like a devastating hit from Washington's Matt Niskanen in the second round of this spring's playoffs.
But not many players have a run in a year's time that Sid the Kid might cap off in the next two weeks. He hoisted the Stanley Cup last June in San Jose, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy along the way. Then he was the most dynamic figure at the World Cup of Hockey as Canada took home the hardware. Monday night in PPG Paints Arena, Crosby gets another Cup final rolling.
The Penguins are four wins over the Nashville Predators away from the NHL's first repeat championship since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings. That's something new, even for Crosby's career.
"When you get here, you have a ton of motivation regardless," Crosby said Sunday at the NHL's annual Media Day. "A lot of guys went through the experience last year and you can draw from it but it doesn't guarantee you anything. The motivation comes from different things for different guys."
In the first 30 years after expansion, teams climbing the mountain and staying there were the norm. Think Flyers, Canadiens, Islanders, Oilers, Lemieux-era Penguins and Red Wings. In the salary cap era, it's become close to impossible. The Blackhawks have won three Cups since 2010 but never two in a row and South Buffalo native Patrick Kane told me prior to the 2015 series against Tampa Bay that fact gnaws at him. The Kings won in 2012 and 2014 but couldn't repeat either.
"I'm aware of it," Crosby said. "We've done a great job all year long. We wanted to get back here, we had a lot of obstacles. There's a lot of factors. Maybe's its one of them but it's just that this is a great opportunity to be back. This doesn't come along often. We said the same thing last year after not being back for seven years. Now we have another chance here and we're excited."
Connor McDavid is certainly charging hard but there's still little question Crosby remains the best player in the world. This is his fourth trip to the final. It could be his third Cup, one more than Lemieux won when he was wearing No. 66.
"I don't compare numbers," Crosby said with a smile. "He's got two as an owner and two as a player. He's got me there."
Crosby led the NHL with 44 goals in the regular season, the second-highest total of his career. He's got seven goals and 20 points over 18 postseason games thus far, including the assist on Chris Kunitz's double-overtime goal that finally put down Ottawa in the East final.
The Pens dealt with Ottawa's 1-3-1 stranglehold in the but this series should be much easier on the eyes. It's Crosby and Evgeni Malkin rating as the game's top pair of centers and trying to solve the freewheeling and shutdown-style Nashville blueline that has become all the rage this postseason.
"Both teams believe in what got them here," Crosby said. "You make minor adjustments. Ultimately, you trust what got you here. As the series goes along is when you start to make more adjustments. You have to be aware of their defense because they're so good at joining the rush and leading the rush. Being aware of that right away is important."
"I watch Sid every practice, he's such a professional guy, most professional I've ever seen," Malkin said. "I want to be the same. I want to be professional too, and I want to be better every day."
And don't feel Malkin is upset that he's overshadowed by Crosby either. After all, he signed an eight-year, $76 million deal in 2013, choosing to stay a year after Crosby signed longterm.
"I feel I'm the guy here too," Malkin said. "People love me. I come to restaurants, people want to shake hands. It's fine for me. I signed a big deal here because I feel we can win every year and I want to play with Sid a long time."
From the how-did-that-happen department comes this nugget: Crosby will turn 30 on August 7. The Penguins seem as strong as ever, but playoff fates can be fickle in hockey. You never really know when your next chance will come. If ever.
"Time certainly goes by fast," Crosby said. "Even just looking back to last year, then the summer, World Cup, everything is flying by here. But this is a position you want to be in. It's an opportunity you have to be excited for, knowing it doesn't come around all the time. ... The drive has been there for our group and has gotten us to this point. As a player, you want to be in the big games and we've found a way to get back here."