NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A year ago, it was Conor Sheary benefiting from the wisdom and skills of Sidney Crosby.
This year, it was Jake Guentzel.
Pittsburgh put the two youngsters alongside the best player in hockey and reaped the dividends along the way to a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship.
Crosby won his second straight Conn Smythe Trophy after collecting 27 points (eight goals and 19 assists) during the Penguins’ playoff run. He now has led the Penguins to three Stanley Cup titles.
But his contributions went beyond those numbers, as it also was evident from the way he helped nurture Pittsburgh’s young talent.
“I can’t put that into words,” Sheary said Sunday night after the Penguins clinched a second straight championship with a 2-0 Game 6 victory in Nashville. “Just to be alongside him for most of this year, how he’s helped me personally and get through these struggles. Just to watch him play and be alongside him, I’m pretty lucky to have that opportunity.”
Sheary capped his rookie season last year by scoring four playoff goals, including an overtime game-winner in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final against San Jose. The 25-year-old Sheary followed that up by collecting 23 goals and 30 assists this season.
This year, Guentzel was the rookie who burst onto the scene. The 22-year-old Nebraska-born forward raised in Minnesota had 13 goals and eight assists in the postseason to tie for the NHL record for playoff points by a rookie. Guentzel shares the record with Dino Ciccarelli and Ville Leino.
“From the day I walked in, Sidney Crosby took me under his wing,” Guentzel said. “He always talked to me. He went out of his way to make me feel welcome.”
Crosby knows particularly well the benefits of earning from a superstar. He started his career with the Penguins just as Mario Lemieux was wrapping up his Hall of Fame career. Crosby even lived at Lemieux’s house during his early years in the Penguins organization.
Lemieux, now the Penguins’ owner, says he could always tell Crosby would become a special player.
“From the start, you knew Sid was a phenom and he was going to have a great career and win many Stanley Cups,” Lemieux said. “He lived with us for eight years and now he lives a couple of blocks down the road. He’s part of the family and a great kid as we all know, a great leader and he’s (had an) amazing career so far. Winning three Stanley Cups is amazing.”
Crosby still remembers how special winning that first championship can be. Once he accepted the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, the captain skated around and then handed it off to 36-year-old defenseman Ron Hainsey to raise over his head. Hainsey had been the NHL player with the most games played (907) without a playoff appearance until this spring.
Now Hainsey has capped his first postseason with a title, and he thought Crosby might pass the Cup to Chris Kunitz or to Matt Cullen, who may have played his final NHL game at the age of 40.
“It felt great,” Hainsey said. “It was unexpected, we won so late, I feel like it all kind of went by in a blur, you know the last couple of minutes. But certainly moments here, the whole night, I will never forget.”
For Crosby, deciding who to hand the Stanley Cup to next was pretty easy as a reminder of just how hard winning in the NHL can be.
“It was just special to be able to pass it to him, somebody who’s probably been through so much and played a long time and can appreciate it as much as he can,” Crosby said. “I’m sure he’s pretty happy to lift it, and I was certainly happy to be able to pass it off to him.”
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