WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After Sidney Crosby had stripped off his pads, slicked in sweat and victory, he darted between reporters to the trainer's room. In the hallway stood Mario Lemieux, his true Penguins predecessor, and one of the few real measuring sticks for the 21-year-old Pittsburgh superstar. Lemieux, towering and regal, stuck out his hand.
"Kid," Lemieux said, shaking hands with the young man who still shares his home. "Trés bon."
You got the feeling that Lemieux was waiting for that exact moment. You got the same feeling about his ward, except that his moments came on the ice. In the first Game 7 of his life, it was Crosby who scored the game's first goal; it was Crosby who assisted on the third, when his opponents began to unravel.
And it was Crosby who scored one last time, helping to strip his keenest rival of the puck and taking off alone. It is not fair to distill what was otherwise a magnificent playoff series into that last image, with Washington's Alexander Ovechkin desperately attacking short-handed, and Crosby flying away to score.
But Crosby's performance defined the end of the series, which came with a shocking 6-2 win over the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center. The Capitals had battled the Penguins so evenly through six otherworldly games that it seemed inevitable Game 7 would be decided not just by a coin flip, but by the bounce of that coin.
Instead, Washington simply fell to pieces, and Pittsburgh hammered them apart. Pittsburgh wins the series, emphatically, four games to three.
So that takeaway, as enduring an image as it is, should not define the series any more than should this final game. Ovechkin might have been the least culpable of the Capitals, who fell behind 5-0 in Game 7 of what had been an impossibly even series. Their rookie goaltender, Simeon Varlamov, finally fell apart; their Norris Trophy favourite defenceman, Mike Green, completely disintegrated, although Washington coach Bruce Boudreau hinted that Green and Ovechkin played hurt in this season.
Ovechkin scored Washington's first goal last night; he could not, in the end, do it alone.
"We were so close," a dejected Ovechkin said. "But close not good enough. Right now, it's not our time. They have chance to score, and they scored. That's it. There was nothing to say."
"It's our fault," said Capitals forward Brooks Laich.
It was Ovechkin who had the first great chance, on a clean breakaway three minutes in, but he was stopped by Marc-André Fleury's elastic glove. It was Crosby who scored the first goal, deftly flipping a deflected point shot from his back skate to his stick and in for a lead Pittsburgh would never relinquish.
Journeyman Craig Adams scored a soft goal just eight seconds later; Bill Guerin, beautifully fed by Crosby, drilled a long slapshot 28 seconds into the second period. Kris Letang made it 4-0 on a similar drive less than two minutes later. It was over right there.
And so ends Ovechkin-Crosby I. Before the series began, so many figured the hype would be belied by hockey's reality - unlike basketball, hockey is not a game in which superstars can dominate on demand.
Crosby and Ovechkin, the two young titans of their era, proved so many wrong. Some will say Crosby elevated his legacy in relation to that of his Russian rival, and maybe he did. But it seems more likely to ennoble them both. Ovechkin had eight goals and 14 points in the seven games; Crosby had eight and 13, and won. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier - they all drove each other to greater places.
But they are tied together with a hyphen only after several duels. Ovechkin bested Crosby for the Calder in 2006; Crosby got a Hart trophy first, but Ovechkin will likely be the first to win two MVPs. Now, Crosby has won their first post-season meeting, with a season on the line. Hopefully, it was first of many.
As Crosby sat in his locker, moments before Lemieux's benediction, he exhaled. "I'll enjoy watching those other two [Game 7s] tomorrow now," he said. He looked, just for a second, like a boy again, patched-together beard and all. But he became even more of a man in this game. And in the hockey imagination, he became that much more.