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Penguins captain Crosby seeks redemption in NHL playoffs

| Wednesday, April 11, 2012

It has been almost two years since Sidney Crosby sat in a dark Mellon Arena, the final member of the defending Stanley Cup champions to leave the building following a shocking Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

That night signaled the beginning of the most tumultuous time of Crosby's life, a period that saw him battle a career-threatening injury and forced him to defend his character, even if no tangible evidence existed for such a defense being necessary.

The hardest part appears over.

Now comes the time for Crosby's redemption.

The playoffs are here, and no current hockey player lives for this stage quite like Crosby.

"I crave that atmosphere," Crosby said. "The playoffs are why you play this game."

Few players have risen to the occasion like Crosby. From leading the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final at 20 and a championship at 21 to scoring the "Golden Goal'' for Canada in overtime at the Vancouver Olympics at 22, Crosby possesses a sense of theater like few others.

And, for the first time in his life, he should be more motivated than ever to deliver something special this spring.

Crosby has been under assault from the Philadelphia coaching staff, New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, NBC analyst Mike Milbury and Canadian analyst Don Cherry during the past 10 days. The war of words has become tiresome for the Penguins' captain. He has been called a whiner, a dirty hockey player and a punk.

"I'm not surprised," he said. "But at the same time, I'm not ready to get into a battle about it. I don't feel like it's necessary to get in these battles in the media. The game is played on the ice. For sure, there are guys I don't like out there. But this is nonsense. It's just getting ridiculous. It's stupid."

Crosby's teammates have come to the defense of their leader in recent days.

"Everyone has their own opinion," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "You just want the respect of your teammates. It's propaganda going into the playoffs. Just trying to distract you from what really matters."

Crosby clearly has the respect of his teammates.

And, according to one of the Penguins, Crosby has changed during the ordeal that has seen him play just 22 games in 16 months.

"I think maybe he's a little more mature," Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz said. "In the sense of getting older, watching games, seeing what's out there. While he was out, he spent a lot of time having lunch with us and talking about the game. He grew as a person, as a leader, as a player.

"He was forced to keep his mind sharp while he was away from the game. He is a little different now."

One thing isn't different: When the playoffs begin Wednesday night, Crosby will be in hockey's spotlight against the team he has always owned.

"I just think Philly and Pittsburgh is a great rivalry," Crosby said. "I want to play well against them whether there are 5,000 or 20,000 people in the crowd. It doesn't matter if they're telling me I suck or if they are cheering for me. It doesn't matter. What matters is that it's the Penguins and Flyers. These are the games you get up for, the games that bring out the best in you."

Crosby produced 37 points in 22 games this regular season, a sign that his physical gifts did not deteriorate despite missing so much time.

Perhaps a scary thought for the Flyers is that Crosby acknowledges his game isn't quite back to 100 percent. Not yet, anyway.

"There is a fine line there, and I missed a lot of time," Crosby said. "You don't get everything back at once. Each game has been a learning process for me, but I'm pretty happy with how I've done."

Everyone in the Penguins organization is expecting big things from Crosby. That he hasn't participated in a postseason game in two years only adds to his hunger.

"I think you see a guy who is really excited, really focused to play in Stanley Cup playoff games," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

The team is also excited about having its captain back.

"It's been awhile," right wing Tyler Kennedy said. "A long while."

Crosby will be competing for his second Stanley Cup this spring.

A championship in June drives him more than any criticism he may hear.

"It was so tough not being out there last year," he said. "When you're winning, you want to share it with the team. When you're losing, you want to feel the same things the team is going through. There is nothing like being out there."

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