On the evolution of Crosby, Pittsburgh’s ‘consummate leader’

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SAN JOSE — Sidney Crosby didn’t lead the Penguins in goals this postseason.

He didn’t lead in assists, either.

In fact, Bryan Rust found the back of the net as many times as Crosby did. And Nick Bonino had more helpers.

Yet to hear the Penguins explain it, there was nobody more valuable to the fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history than No. 87 — statistics to be damned.

“What I really admire about Sid is that it didn’t matter,” Pens head coach Mike Sullivan said about Crosby’s individual numbers. “All that mattered is that we were winning, and that’s all he cared about.

“He pushed this group. He led first and foremost through his play. He was a handful every shift. They scored a big goal tonight, and his line comes right back and gets that second goal. He elevates his game at the right time to help our team get over the hump.”

The goal Sullivan’s referring to:

This series against the Sharks hammered home the shift in Crosby’s game. He only finished with four points in six games — all assists, no goals — but his impact was beyond pronounced.

There was a deft, sweeping backhand pass to set up Conor Sheary for a goal in Game 1. There was Crosby “calling his shot” with a designed faceoff play for the OT winner in Game 2.

Tonight, it was a monster shift right after Logan Couture had tied the game.

Yes, Kris Letang was equally brilliant and yes, the Sharks were defensively discombobulated. But it was Crosby that made the all-important pass to Letang, putting Letang in the record books alongside Ulf Samuelsson, Ron Francis and Max Talbot as the only Penguins to score Stanley Cup-winning goals.

“[Crosby’s] the consummate leader,” Sullivan said. “He took this team, and this team evolved because of his leadership.”

One of the major narratives making the rounds right now is about Crosby’s redefinition of his defensive and two-way game.

It was really on display in this series, but dates all the way back to second round against Washington — his line was matched up against the Alex Ovechkin line, and the two essentially sawed each other off. Crosby didn’t receive huge accolades at the time, and his production was down, but his ability to neutralize Washington’s high-octane unit also allowed Pittsburgh’s other lines to receive easier matchups, a big part of the HBK’s success this postseason.

“He can adapt and change his game to different things,” Chris Kunitz said. “Early in his career he went out and got points and did everything but that didn’t make him satisfied.

“He had to go out and lead through example and became a better player. Offense, defense, he goes out with nine seconds left, takes a faceoff for our team. He’s the all-encompassing guy.”

No longer the 100-plus point scorer he was in his early 20s, Crosby has seemingly found that groove all the greats find — one that lets the game come to them. One that doesn’t force the issue, but takes advantage of the opportunities presented.

One that knows the defensive side of the game can as important — if not more — than the offensive side.

“Sometimes in the playoffs you have to play defense, and I think he’s been able to do that,” Pens owner Mario Lemieux said. “The game was on the line a few times, and he made some great plays defensively.

“That’s the sign of a great leader, and a great captain.”