- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

PITTSBURGH | When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman awards the Stanley Cup on Friday night, the moment will serve as a symbolic snapshot of the state of the sport.

If the 39-year-old legend from Sweden skates to center ice to accept the 34 1/2-pound trophy, the league’s premier franchise will have put an exclamation point on one of the greatest stretches of sustained excellence of the past two decades in the four major sports.

But if it’s the 21-year-old from Nova Scotia who has dealt with unreasonable expectations since before he could drive a car, it could signal a new era for the NHL.

“It is something we all dream of, but whether or not you actually think it is going to happen - you just never know,” Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “We’ve got a great opportunity here. It is a matter of making the most of it and enjoying it.”

The 15th Game 7 in Stanley Cup Finals history will be played Friday night when the Detroit Red Wings host the Penguins at Joe Louis Arena. It also will be a defining moment for the captains of both teams.

Last season, Nicklas Lidstrom became the first European captain to win the Cup. Lidstrom is already considered one of the best defensemen in history, and along with three teammates, this would be his fifth time celebrating a Stanley Cup title with the Red Wings.

Since Lidstrom’s rookie year of 1991-92, the Red Wings have finished no lower than second in their division and earned at least 100 points in the regular season 13 times. They could become only the third franchise to win the Cup five times in the past 50 years.

For all of their veteran experience, there is only one player on the team - defenseman Brian Rafalski - who has played in a Game 7 in the championship round.

“We’ve played in some big games, no doubt. We’ve played in some games where we’ve had opportunities to close teams out,” Detroit forward Kris Draper said. “But, you know, never have I been in a situation like this in a Game 7 where so much is on the line. I’m excited about it. It’s the greatest thing that an athlete can ask for.”

Crosby, meanwhile, has been the face of the NHL since he entered the league four seasons ago. He is both lauded and scrutinized more than any other player in the league. But he now has a chance to do something at his age that escaped Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, NBA stars LeBron James and Michael Jordan and current rivals Alex Ovechkin and Mike Richards: Win a championship.

“We’re one win away from doing what we wanted to do and doing something a lot of us have dreamed of doing for a long time,” Crosby said. “I’d say that’s a pretty exciting feeling. We know they’re in the same position, but I will take this opportunity any day.”

Not known as a scorer, Crosby has potted the most goals in this postseason. He had eight goals in a classic seven-game series to vanquish Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals, including two in the decisive game.

In this series, he has been contained by defensive dynamos Lidstrom, Rafalski and Henrik Zetterberg. He had only one goal and three points in the first six games, but that could be erased with a signature performance Friday.

There are many young stars in the NHL, but Crosby taking the Cup from Bettman would signify a changing of the guard.

“The main thing is to not have any regrets,” Crosby said. “You want to go in there and make sure you’ve done everything to prepare and leave it all out there. It is a pretty simple situation.

“There is no thinking about it - you’ve got to empty the tank.”

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