SAN JOSE, Calif. — When the Pittsburgh Penguins take on the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on Saturday night, Sidney Crosby will tie Owen Nolan for 128th place in NHL history with 1,200 games played.
This is quite an achievement and, should Crosby stay healthy for a few more years, he’ll certainly move up the list into the top 100 and beyond.
What struck me today about this milestone — Crosby hits so many milestones that we kind of take them for granted at this point — is how little has changed over the years.
Sure, around 2018, he passed his crown onto Connor McDavid. And yes, there is a little bit of gray in his hair these days. But he’s still Crosby, which is to say, he’s still great and everything about him still feels the same.
In Penguins’ history, we can only really compare him to Mario Lemieux. They are the two greatest players in franchise history, the two most important figures in franchise history and indelibly linked forever.
By the time Lemieux was 36, he had already ended a nearly four-year retirement and was in the midst of captaining Canada to its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years. One year removed from his remarkable return from retirement — the season that saw him produce 76 points in 43 games at 35 after not playing in almost four years, which we really don’t talk about enough — he was dealing with a hip injury and finally showing signs of age. Sometimes he played, sometimes he didn’t. The magic was still there on some nights. He was always an attraction.
Crosby never quite had Lemieux’s flair for the dramatic, Golden Goal notwithstanding. Nobody did. But what Crosby does have over his former landlord and boss is a kind of longevity that the sport has never witnessed. Lemieux had to change his style in his 30s after the incomparable talent of his 20s was reduced by years of chronic back pain and cancer.
While Crosby did have a career-threatening concussion more than a decade ago, he has since been able to stay healthy. He hasn’t really changed his game because it hasn’t been necessary. He doesn’t score on the rush like he did when he was a younger man, yet he still possesses that capability. He’s still fast. He’s still bullishly strong with the puck. He still sees the ice like only the great ones see it.
I was watching him in practice in San Jose on Friday. Nothing has changed. He was zipping around the ice like he was a kid. He was one of the first players on the ice and one of the last off. He stopped and waved to a few fans in the crowd. He asked a member of the media relations department if his presence in the interview area was needed. Then he shook a few hands like he always does.
For half of his life, he’s had the same routine.
So, while it’s true that 128 other players have played at least as many NHL games as Crosby, I think it’s fair to ask how many have still been this good while reaching this milestone.
The list is short.
“I’m running out of adjectives to describe him,” Mike Sullivan said.
Lemieux, because of his health, only ever played in 915 NHL games.
Should Crosby stay healthy, I believe he will exceed 1,500 games played. Through all of these years, he’s still so great. It’s been like watching a captivating three-hour movie — the minutes fly past you quickly.
- Don’t be surprised if Crosby begins to heat up.
I could be wrong, but watching him in practice today, he looked a little sharper. A little faster. Sometimes, with older players, it takes them a little longer to find their legs.
My eyes tell me that he’s about to find his legs.
- It’s impossible to be in San Jose and not think of Lemieux’s exploits against this franchise.
He played against the Sharks only 14 times. In those contests, Lemieux was never held without a point, producing 17 goals and 49 points.
In 1992, his back was bothering him and he missed a game in Los Angeles. He had stayed home from the California swing. But he specifically took a flight to San Jose for the game there a couple of nights later, just because he so enjoyed playing against the Sharks. Bad back and all, he put up a goal and six assists that night.
- I’ll be quite interested to hear what kind of reception Erik Karlsson receives in San Jose on Saturday.
He produced a historical season last year, putting up 101 points and winning the Norris Trophy. The Sharks, however, didn’t come close to reaching expectations during his time here.
It’s also no secret that he wanted out of San Jose.
Karlsson was happy to speak about his time in San Jose on Friday and said all of the right things. I genuinely think he liked it here. I also genuinely think he knew he was never going to compete for a championship here.
- Along those lines, the Sharks are 0-9-1 this season and have been outscored, 45-10.
They were embarrassed by the Vancouver Canucks in a 10-1 rout on Thursday.
On the surface, it would appear to be a game where the Penguins would right themselves.
I also think it smells like a dangerous game. The Sharks were humiliated. When teams lose games by that margin, you know they will play hard in their next contest. People are fighting for jobs.
Sure, the Penguins should beat the Sharks. They probably will. But the Sharks won’t lay down like they did against the Canucks. The Penguins had better show up.
- While it was slightly overblown, Ron Hextall did have an interesting habit of not always attending his team’s games, especially on road trips.
Kyle Dubas hasn’t missed a game yet and he’s on this trip. It’s fair to wonder how Dubas will react should the struggling Penguins endure a rough California trip.
- One of Sullivan’s great strengths is his ability to have his team psychologically prepared.
Feel free to complain about some of his line combinations, the power play and his system. Nobody’s perfect, not even a coach with a couple of Stanley Cup rings.
Sullivan, however, always has his team prepared to play mentally and I sense that, even though he’s displeased with his team’s current performance, he’s keeping his players loose on this trip. Sullivan was very positive in his meeting with the media and looked in good spirits during practice.
- It’s becoming clear that Jeff Carter will be a healthy scratch on Saturday.
Look for Vinnie Hinostroza to replace him on the fourth line.
I applaud Sullivan for this decision. Carter has struggled. Many in the fan base have long believed that Sullivan didn’t have the backbone to bench a respected veteran like Carter.
- It’s tough to break up a lineup that wins, so maybe if the Penguins win on Saturday, we see the same lineup in Anaheim on Tuesday.
Things get interesting next Thursday in Los Angeles. Carter is among the great Kings of all time and was instrumental in their two Stanley Cup championships. This is likely his final season and, hence, his final chance to play in L.A. Being a healthy scratch in that game would be a tough pill for him to swallow, I have to think.
He scored 81 goals over 615 games as a member of the Sharks.
While his penalty killing has been strong in Pittsburgh, it would do his new team well if he’d make his return to the score sheet.
- Starting on Saturday, the Penguins play 17 games in the next 35 days, with 11 of those games coming on the road. Buckle up.
(Photo of Erik Karlsson and Sidney Crosby: Jeanine Leech / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)