On Sunday night, after Sidney Crosby lifted the Stanley Cup for the second consecutive year and for the third time in his career, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux was asked on NBCSN if he ever saw this kind of success coming for the Penguins captain, back when Crosby was a rookie and living in Lemieux's house.
Lemieux didn't hesitate: "Oh, of course," he said.
Crosby is the rare athlete who began his career with the expectation that he'd finish it as one of the all-time greats. He's the even rarer athlete who's lived up to those expectations. So even before Sunday night's controversial 2-0 Game 6 victory over the Predators clinched the fifth title in Penguins franchise history, and even before Crosby was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for the second consecutive year, his status as the best player of his generation and someone on track to be one of the best ever was pretty indisputable.
But for all the individual awards and all the Olympic gold medals he'd won over the first decade of his career, it's the past 12 months that have secured that legacy.
Fair or not, we demand so much from our hockey heroes, perhaps because of how high the bar had been set in the 25 years before Crosby entered the league. Greats like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux -- the players Crosby was considered heir to -- didn't just win scoring titles and MVPs and Stanley Cups. They won multiples of each.
Crosby, meanwhile, won his first MVP and scoring title in 2007. Then, in 2014, he won both again. In between, he captained the Penguins to a Stanley Cup, won a pair of Olympic gold medals and returned to a high level of play after concussion issues threatened to derail his career. But the difference between one Cup win and three is enormous -- not just because it's, you know, three times as many titles, but because in this case, the two most recent ones re-established Crosby and the Penguins as the dominant story in the post-lockout NHL.
The Blackhawks' three Stanley Cup wins between 2010 and 2015 were a huge achievement, given the constraints of the salary cap, but the Penguins just became the first team in nearly two decades to win back-to-back titles, and they did so in large part because of Crosby, who led the NHL in goals for the second time in his career and who played some of his best hockey in the playoffs, when the Pens needed to win three tough series in a row in order to repeat. (Crosby also won a World Cup with Team Canada in the fall, though that lacks the cachet of the Olympics, no matter how hard the NHL will push its own tournament now that the league isn't sending players to the Winter Games next year.)
For better or worse, individual success and team success get tangled up when evaluating a player like Crosby, and given the expectations he faced upon entering the league, winning just one title (early in his career, no less) would have been something of a knock against him. But there's no need for that debate now.
To be sure, this Penguins team is full of great players and great stories, from Matt Murray backstopping his team to two Stanley Cups while technically a rookie, to Jake Guentzel's incredible postseason, to Phil Kessel arriving from a tough situation in Toronto to win two rings. There's Mike Sullivan winning titles in his first two seasons behind the Pittsburgh bench, Patric Hornqvist scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal against his former team and Evgeni Malkin, not to be overshadowed, leading the Penguins in scoring during the postseason. In more general terms, the Penguins just won a Stanley Cup without a bona fide No. 1 defenseman on their active roster.
However, these will always be Crosby's Penguins. He may never approach the untouchable point totals of Gretzky or the incredible goals-per-game figures of Lemieux. He may not dominate the sport in quite the same way. And frankly, he may never cease to be the player fans in many cities love to hate. But his resume now has everything one could possibly want -- not just the individual awards, but team success on both the international and NHL levels, including two straight Cup wins in an era in which that's harder than ever.
And the Penguins and Crosby, who will turn just 30 in August, aren't done yet.