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Crosby returns to Cup final with new hunger

PITTSBURGH – By the time he was 21 years old, Sidney Crosby had played in the Stanley Cup final twice and raised the revered silver chalice over his head in his second attempt in 2009. At 22, he scored the Golden Goal for Team Canada in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

It all seemed so easy, so predetermined.

No. 87 had taken over the mantle of the Steel City from No. 66 and there would be plenty more Cups, certainly more than the two now-Penguins owner Mario Lemieux won in the 1990s. Individual and team greatness was Crosby’s destiny.

Don’t look now, but Sid the Kid is no kid anymore.

He turns 29 in August and has played 11 seasons in the NHL. His individual numbers continue to mount but he’s still stuck at one Cup. He won’t even make Cup final appearance No. 3 until his team opens its long-awaited quest here Monday night against the San Jose Sharks.

Crosby has endured missing most of two seasons with a serious concussion. He’s shuffled through teammates, through the dismissal of Stanley Cup-winning coach and GM combo Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero. Just once in the last six seasons had the Penguins gotten past the second round of the playoffs and even that trip ended in disappointment, as Pittsburgh was wiped out in a four-game sweep by Boston in the 2013 Eastern Conference final.

Nearly seven years after the Penguins won the Cup in Game Seven at Detroit, they’re finally getting another chance.

“I appreciated it prior to going through some of those things,” Crosby said during the NHL’s annual Media Day gabfest Sunday in Consol Energy Center. “Now I definitely appreciate it more. I realize how tough it is and I’m definitely motivated to win. This got bigger than 7-8 years ago but the one thing that hasn’t changed is how much fun it is, how exciting it is to have this opportunity.

“I feel a lot more experienced, a lot more prepared. There are guys who are going to go through this for the first time and say, ‘Wow, this is crazy. I haven’t seen anything like this before.’ It is busier than it was in ’08-09. That’s all part of it. But it’s all the same when you get on the ice.”

Crosby says this series might look a lot like those back-to-back classics against the Red Wings. There will be two teams skating like the wind, and not one heavy, physical club trying to simply hang on and slow down the Penguins.

“This is going to be probably some of the fastest hockey that any of us have played when you look at the two teams, how they match up and how they want to play,” Crosby said.

That should be music to the ears of hockey purists and the NHL brass, all of whom are well aware this series risks being dwarfed by the potential of an NBA Finals between Steph Curry and LeBron James. And that’s even though none of the games will be on the same night, like Monday night’s opener will be going against Game Seven of the Golden State-Oklahoma City series.

Star power on the ice can help and Crosby is about as big as they come. But in the first two months of the season, the Penguins were such a mess that you wondered if they would even make the playoffs.

When the Penguins fired Bylsma in 2014, they made a mistake hiring Mike Johnston to be their coach. He was out of the junior ranks and never earned the players’ respect. This was a team full of stars that needed to skate like the wind. They couldn’t. Crosby pretty much admitted that Sunday with a not-so-veiled reference to the former coach while praising the approach of Mike Sullivan.

“He has stressed really quick puck movement, he didn’t really ever want to slow the game down at any point,” Crosby said. “You can say you want to play fast but if you do things out there that start to slow you down, it kind of goes against what you’re saying.”

Sullivan has stayed consistent with his approach and the Penguins were the hottest team in the league the final three months of the regular season.

“He really enforced to make quick plays, move the puck quick, move our feet,” Crosby said. “That was the constant message, it’s still the constant message. That’s what he stresses. He believes that’s our biggest strength and we have to play to it. He puts a lot of trust in us to make the play that’s there.

“There are times you have to chip a puck and maybe not make the fancy play. … There are times you have make the play where there’s a clear pass to be made and he expects you to make that too.”

Sullivan pretty much echoed those feelings when he met the media earlier in the day.

“Look at our players and they all want to play a speed game,” Sullivan said. “They can all skate … Speed in all its forms, whether it’s foot speed or team speed in your ability to move the puck and create a competitive advantage is what I’ve envisioned with this group.”

Crosby had just two goals in the first 18 games this season but finished with 36 goals and 85 points. He has 938 points in 707 career games and barring injury will crack 1,000 next season before he turns 30.

Sullivan said he’s floored by the way Crosby is constantly the first player on the ice for practice and how his captain pushes each day even when it might be more advisable to ease up on the gas pedal.

“It’s fun to see him in practice and that’s something people may not think about,” agreed Penguins forward Carl Hagelin, a former adversary with the New York Rangers. “He’s a real grinder, always out there trying to get better.”

Crosby a grinder? That’s not the normal image that comes to mind, but Hagelin’s point was valid.

“His work ethic is the reason he is the best player in the world,” Hagelin said. “It’s just the way he grinds. Every shift, every practice. He’s got the hands and hockey sense not many players have. The reason he is where he is right now is because of how he grinds every day and probably all summer as well.”

The Sharks have gotten through Los Angeles, Nashville and St. Louis to get to this point. Fine teams all but, with apologies to perhaps Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty of the Kings, there is not a superstar in the bunch. That’s about to change.

“In the first three rounds, put all their top players together and that would be Crosby,” said San Jose defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, a Crosby teammate in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. “So it’s going to be a lot harder but a lot more fun too.”