- Scott Burnside, NHL
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In a summer dominated by the ridiculous (the middle-of-the-night firing of NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly) and the mega-ridiculous (the ongoing battle over the Phoenix Coyotes and the resignation of coach Wayne Gretzky last week), we take away one image from this summer that is, we hope, a talisman for a better day.
It was a brilliant Saturday evening in early August near Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. At the side of Sidney Crosby's lake house, away from the family and friends who had come to celebrate one last evening with the Stanley Cup, there was Crosby, kneeling in front of the Cup, hose in one hand, dishrag in another, cleaner on the grass in front of him.
The Keepers of the Cup, Walt Neubrand and Phil Pritchard, offered to give the Cup one last shine before presenting it for the evening's festivities. But Crosby would have none of it. In the final hours of his time with the Cup, in what would be the final weeks of his summer as captain of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Crosby wanted to savor every minute.
With onlookers chiding him about missing a spot and not using enough elbow grease, Crosby lovingly shone the Stanley Cup to a high gleam.
It was a moment that speaks to what it means to be a champion.
Fleeting, timeless, that moment is gone, and in its passing the Cup is once again up for grabs. Moments like this are now available to the highest bidder. And if it's possible for the most hallowed trophy in sports to be even more keenly sought after, the Penguins' win seems certain to have changed the landscape of the NHL.
"Yeah, it's mixed emotions," Crosby told ESPN.com on the eve of training camp. "You're kind of sad, but I'm ready to move on and look forward to getting out there and competing.
"I'm ready for that. It's been a quick summer and all those things; it's been a lot of fun. But I think we're just eager to get back out there and start working towards getting back there."
A year ago, the Penguins were headed to Stockholm to start the season coming off a disappointing six-game Stanley Cup finals loss to Detroit. Many believed the veteran Wings would repeat. And if not the Wings, the talent-laden San Jose Sharks looked like a good bet.
The rest of the NHL's young guns, the new faces of a thriving, dynamic league, seemingly would have to wait their turn. Their turn, most believed, was not yet at hand. But when the Penguins marched past state rival Philadelphia, squeaked past Washington in a series they at one point trailed 2-0, swept Carolina and rallied from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to beat Detroit in seven games, there was a seismic change in what was possible in the NHL.
Along with playoff MVP and defending NHL scoring champ Evgeni Malkin, Crosby and the youthful Pens suddenly shed the skin that defined them simply as "young" or "talented" and became champions.
In doing so, they laid down the gauntlet to a host of other young stars across the NHL who walked into training camp this season, looked in their respective mirrors and said, "Why not us?"
The Blackhawks not only enter this season having accomplished an impressive off-the-ice renaissance, they also enter, as Toews' teammate Patrick Kane put it, where it's Stanley Cup or bust for the youthful club.
The Penguins' model has altered the paradigm, twisting possibilities into probabilities. Accomplish, and the Cup is yours. Fail, and youth no longer will be an acceptable excuse.
Perhaps no player feels this pressure more acutely than Alex Ovechkin.
Nowhere was the proverbial line in the ice more clearly drawn than in the first postseason meeting of Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin last season. They are the holy trinity of hockey's new age. Between them, they have captured three scoring titles, three MVP trophies and a Conn Smythe Trophy among other individual accolades since the end of the lockout in 2005.
It is why the second-round clash between Washington and Pittsburgh was instantly heralded as a classic when the matchup was revealed and then exceeded even those lofty expectations.
The Caps won the first two games at home. In the second game, Crosby and Ovechkin traded hat tricks in a game for the ages. The Pens won Game 3 but lost top defenseman Sergei Gonchar on a borderline knee-on-knee hit from Ovechkin. The Pens ended up winning three straight to take a 3-2 series lead but couldn't close out the Caps at home, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 back in Washington.
It was as though destiny demanded such a showdown, and the lead-up to the game provided coverage the likes of which the NHL had not seen for years. That night, Ovechkin missed an early breakaway, and the Pens responded by crushing the Caps 6-2 on home ice.
Ovechkin told ESPN.com he didn't watch another playoff game after that night.
"Why [did] I have to watch?" he asked petulantly.
But why did he choose not to?
"Time to rest. It was time to rest. Time to forget," he said.
Forget? Don't think for a moment that standing in line and shaking hands with Crosby and Malkin at the end of that series is ever far from Ovechkin's mind. It's certainly a moment that has formed an indelible impression on Crosby.
"I look back, and it was just back and forth; it was just a roller coaster," Crosby said. "And I just remember not thinking about the end result once. I never let that cross my mind. I was always thinking about what I needed to do and what we needed to do as a team.
"I think I tried to maintain that focus throughout the whole playoffs, so that was a good learning experience for me. Not just the playoffs, but that series in particular, because it did swing so many ways. It would have been easy to get caught up with everything."
Who can know what the coming weeks and months will bring.
Two years ago, the Caps were going sideways. Then they fired their coach and brought in Bruce Boudreau, who has helped mold the Caps into a legitimate Cup contender. Boudreau said in a recent interview that losing to the Pens and then watching them win should be a sign to his team that it's on the right track.
How this past spring unfolded, with the Pens beating the Caps and then winning a Cup, ups the ante for Ovechkin and Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom and the rest of the Caps. It's an easy line to follow.
It's already hard not to imagine how a repeat might play out.
"You know what? Hopefully," Crosby said. "[We're] pretty young in our careers, and [it's] probably not the last time we're going to play each other. Luckily we were able to win that, but I'm sure we'll meet each other again down the road."
Still, is it not so for all the players at this table?
Former NHL coach and current national broadcaster Pierre McGuire likens it to the golden age of the NBA, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird began to win championships as young stars.
"That upped the ante for [Michael] Jordan," McGuire told ESPN.com. He added that those champions also put pressure on the young stars in Utah and Patrick Ewing in New York.
"They're star players, and they're right down the road from those guys," McGuire said.
Ovechkin said he didn't watch another playoff game, but you know he was following how it all went down. Toews and Kane both said they couldn't bear to watch the start of the Cup finals, but they were glued to their TVs by the end of the series.
They watched because, well, they were hockey fans before they were hockey players, and that Cup finals series was as compelling as they come. And they watched because, maybe in doing so, they were preparing themselves for their own walk across that same stage.
Now, the Cup is up for grabs. Now, that moment on a summer evening with the Cup shining as the sun went down is within the grasp of all of them.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
1dDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com