PITTSBURGH - Mario Lemieux didn't win a scoring title until his fourth NHL season and, despite his enormous talent and on-ice presence, couldn't lead the Pittsburgh Penguins into the playoffs until his fifth season.
Sidney Crosby did both in his second season. At age 19.
The NHL hasn't seen anything like this since a 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky's first NHL season with the Edmonton Oilers in 1979-80 - a teenager being greatly responsible for carrying his team into the postseason.
Crosby did exactly that with his 120-point season, one that left him six points ahead of San Jose's Joe Thornton and secured his first Art Ross Trophy as the NHL scoring leader. There aren't many in the NHL predicting it will be his last.
"It's a nice accomplishment, and I didn't come into this season expecting it," Crosby said after setting up both Pittsburgh goals in a 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Saturday night. "I tried to have the best season possible, and I was lucky enough to get it."
Crosby is the first teenager to win the Ross. Gretzky equaled Marcel Dionne of the Los Angeles Kings with 137 points in 1979-80, but Dionne won the trophy because he had more goals.
Still, the most impressive statistic of Crosby's sophomore season wasn't his point total, which represented an 18-point increase from his rookie year, but this one: the Penguins' 47-24-11 record.
The Penguins' 105 points were the second most in franchise history, and bettered the point totals of their Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1991 and 1992. The 47-point improvement from a season ago, when they had a 22-46-14 record, was the fourth best in NHL history. Their 47 victories were two more than they had in their previous two seasons combined.
"The goal (when the season started) was just to get into the playoffs and, all of a sudden, we were fighting for home ice the whole second half," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "So I don't think anyone can say anything less than it was a great season."
Now, the question going into the Penguins' first playoff series in six years, or since Lemieux's comeback season in 2000-01, is how good it will be. The fifth- seeded Penguins open the playoffs later this week in Ottawa, a team they've never met in the postseason.
"You work all season to get to this point," Crosby said. "Now it's time to get going. Last year, I can remember having the season over and being excited for the playoffs to start, but watching them wasn't fun."
Crosby's first playoffs are likely to be better than Gretzky's - his Oilers, the 16th- and last-seeded team in 1980, were eliminated by Philadelphia in three games. Lemieux took Pittsburgh into the second round in 1988-89, when he had his memorable eight-point game against the Flyers, but the Penguins were beaten in Game 7 at home by Philadelphia backup goalie Ken Wregget. Eight Penguins players have playoff experience, but most were in supporting roles with other teams - only 40-year-old Gary Roberts, 39-year-old Mark Recchi and 33-year-old Sergei Gonchar have played prominent roles in the postseason. To Recchi, the only current Penguins player who has appeared in a playoff game with them, that's hardly a disadvantage. "I won the Stanley Cup in my first playoffs," Recchi said, referring to the 1990-91 Penguins. "It's all about how you approach it. We've got guys who have unbelievable attitudes who have been in situations where they're been under pressure, whether it's in juniors or the world juniors." The Penguins' top three goal scorers are under 21 - Crosby (36 goals), 20-year-old Evgeni Malkin (33 goals) and 18-year-old Jordan Staal (29 goals) - and that's believed to be an NHL playoff first. But to Roberts, who turns 41 next month, the Penguins' young legs and fresh attitudes are a positive going into the playoffs, not a negative. He thinks they were tested last month when, playing a grueling 17 games in 31 days, the Penguins went 12-3-2 - the best March in franchise history. "We've got a lot of guys who don't have playoff experience, but that's probably a good thing," Roberts said. "They're loose, but this team's a very mature group. They're committed and they're disciplined, they work daily on the system and on trying to be better. That's nice to see for an old guy like me."comments powered by Disqus