(Reuters) - Sidney Crosby was hailed as “The Next One” before he played his first NHL game 12 years ago and he more than lived up to the hype on Sunday when he lifted a third Stanley Cup to cement his place among the all-time greats.
Crosby, who was widely considered the heir to Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, silenced any remaining critics by helping his Pittsburgh Penguins become the first team in almost 20 years to repeat as NHL champions and picked up a second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP as well.
“He’s now one of the best to ever play the game,” Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, a two-time Stanley Cup winner as a player, said of his former team mate. “To win three Stanley Cups and two Conn Smythe (trophies) in a row is pretty good.”
Crosby was the Penguins’ second-highest scorer in the playoffs with 27 points and the 29-year-old saved his best performance for Game Five of the Final with the series tied 2-2 and Nashville riding the momentum of consecutive victories.
With the destiny of the Stanley Cup in the balance, a determined Crosby delivered a dominating performance right from the opening shift, when he rang a shot off the post while being pulled down to the ice by a Predators defenseman.
Crosby went on to record three assists on the team’s first five goals in a 6-0 romp to become Pittsburgh’s all-time leading scorer in Stanley Cup Finals.
“He made a statement in that game,” Lemieux, a Hall of Famer who is the eighth-leading scorer in NHL history, said after winning his third title as an owner.
“He could feel that we were getting close to winning the Cup and that was the most important game of the season and he played like it. He was unbelievable.”
In addition to Crosby’s NHL accomplishments over the last year, he also led Canada to a World Cup of Hockey gold medal and was named MVP in that tournament.
His career, which has earned him numerous individual awards, also includes two Olympic gold medals, most notably the 2010 triumph in which he scored the winning goal in overtime.
But Crosby remains too humble to enter the debate of where his latest accomplishments put him in the conversation of all-time greats.
“I don’t think (it means) a whole lot. To share this with this group of guys, that was our goal at the start of the year,” said Crosby, who is the third player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy in consecutive years.
“We knew (repeating as champions) hadn’t been done in a long time and to be able to accomplish it is a great feeling.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by John O'Brien