Pens are winners no matter what

SCOTT MORRISON

, Last Updated: 11:56 AM ET

It can be safely argued that Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins are already big-time winners, even if the worst-case scenario plays out in the Stanley Cup final.

Consider the Crosby chronology for starters.

He was the youngest player, at 19 years eight months, to reach 200 career points. Wayne Gretzky, if you are wondering, was a few months past his 20th birthday when he accomplished the feat.

Crosby was also the youngest player in any pro sport to win a league scoring title, accomplishing that last season, his second, in which he also helped the Penguins improve by 47 points, the fourth biggest turnaround in NHL history.

Exactly one year and one week ago, he was named captain of the Penguins, making him the youngest in league history, roughly three months younger than Vincent Lecavalier was when named captain in Tampa Bay in March 2000.

The timelines aren't to inspire debate over greatness, because there is still much to play out before that becomes a legitimate practice. But it speaks to just how good, how quickly this kid has become. Did we mention he likely saved the franchise in Pittsburgh and is responsible for the sod being turned on a new arena?

Crosby's rapid success has helped bring rapid success to the Penguins, who two years ago were the second worst team in the NHL, finishing with 59 points, and 18 months ago faced an uncertain future as a franchise in Pittsburgh. But they made the playoffs a year ago and this season, incredibly, they are guaranteed to be no worse than second best.

Back in training camp, Crosby was asked "what's next?"

"We are all hungry to take the next step," he said. "And I haven't won a Stanley Cup." Over the next fortnight we will see if winning is in the cards, but just getting there is remarkable, something not many around the Penguins thought possible until late in the season, after the trade deadline.

For perspective, it took Gretzky until his fourth season to make the final and his fifth season to win his first Stanley Cup.

Different times, different circumstances, but it remains that Crosby is on fast forward and if the Penguins are able to beat the Red Wings, he will have done it in just his third season.

You could argue that Crosby, who is tied for the playoff scoring lead with 21 points, would be the prime choice -- if the Penguins prevail -- to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player, which would make him the youngest to do that. He has produced points, he has stuck his nose into the fray when necessary and he has become a fierce two-way player, his relentless back checking having led to turnovers and a handful of key goals for the Penguins in these playoffs.

In all facets of the game, he has set the tone for the Penguins and the rest have bought in. This spring the complete package has become even more complete.

Now the challenge becomes that much greater as the best teams in their respective conferences meet in the final. An experienced Detroit team that is poised and patient, deep and tremendous defensively represents the toughest opposition the Penguins have faced, a dream matchup for the NHL.

This series is very even on paper. Both teams can score and both can play defence, though Pittsburgh has the edge in the former, Detroit the latter. The Penguins have a ton of weapons to challenge that defence, while the return of Johan Franzen could bring more secondary scoring for the Wings. The special teams are virtually mirror images statistically, so the analytical stalemate continues.

The difference may come down to discipline, to not allowing the other team's power play to beat you. In the end, the defensive strength and the experience of the Red Wings may be the edge.

The prediction is Detroit in six games. If we're wrong, which would be the sixth time this spring, that would mean Crosby would become the youngest captain to raise the Stanley Cup over his head and we should know by now not to be surprised.


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