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Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby brings a challenge to the Lightning

Crosby doesn’t have down years, which is why the Penguins don’t have down years.

BRANDON — We’ve seen this before. On paper, Pittsburgh seems on the decline, like this might be a bit of an off year.

Then the season starts and the Penguins are right there in the thick of it. How? Two words: Sidney Crosby.

“I’m pretty sure their captain leads the way,” Victor Hedman said. “Everyone else follows. He’s one of those players who is never going to take no for an answer.”

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Jon Cooper and Ryan McDonagh echoed Hedman’s answer as the Lightning (4-3-1) prepared to face the Penguins (6-3-0) tonight at 8 p.m. in Amalie Arena.

Steven Stamkos took it a step further, adding Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to the mix, but even with those two other elite players, the Penguins’ continued success starts with Crosby.

He’s been in the league for 15 years and only twice has he not received votes for the Hart Trophy. The only down years for Crosby have been due to his recurring injury issues.

Crosby has never averaged under a point per game. In 2010-11 (of one his injury-shortened seasons), he had 66 points in 41 games. If he’d been able to maintain that pace and played a full season, his 132 points would have passed what Nikita Kucherov did last year.

Last season, Crosby’s 100 points was tied for fifth in the league and he finished second in the Hart voting.

“It’s not only his skill set, but his work ethic and his skill on the ice,” Stamkos said. “He’s dangerous. You can’t take a shift off against him or he’ll make you pay.”

Stamkos played with Crosby in the 2016 World Cup. Up close, he was even further impressed by Crosby’s drive and the little things he does to be a better player.

Crosby maintains his place at or near the top of the league statistically without playing with other superstars. Malkin, who is currently injured, typically centers the second line.

Throughout his career, Crosby has taken players and worked with them to make them better. Jake Guentzel, Crosby’s left wing for much of the last four years, is one of those players.

He’s a great player on his own, but Crosby has made Guentzel even better.

Above all of Crosby’s undeniable skill, it’s that drive that stands out to Cooper. NBC Sports analyst Brian Boucher, who called Pittsburgh’s game against Colorado a week ago and will call tonight’s game against the Lightning, agrees.

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“Once you’ve gotten to the point that you’ve done it all, it’s human nature to take your foot off the gas a little bit,” Boucher said. “But that’s the difference with Crosby.”

He’s won the Stanley Cup three times and the Hart twice. In a league that’s making longevity increasingly difficult, and trending toward 20-something players rather than 30-something, this 32-year-old remains at the top.

“He’s motivated beyond belief,” Boucher said. “It’s all about wanting to be better every night. When you have that and the skill level that he has. Sometimes you have guys who are extremely talented but his drive is not the same.”

Crosby is dangerous not only offensively but defensively as well. The debate between he and Connor McDavid for best player in the league is split between those who appreciate McDavid’s next-level offensive talent and Crosby’s two-way play.

“You can’t cheat the way around the ice offensively or defensively,” McDonagh said. “He’s going to be in good positions. You have to be really sharp with the puck on your stick because he’s really good at taking it away and his instincts take over from there.”

Then there’s what Hedman called Crosby’s mean streak. He plays with an edge to his game and if he gets a little bit angry, Crosby only gets better on the ice. He doesn’t leave you with much to work with.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at Follow @dianacnearhos.