Now, more than ever, this is truly Sidney Crosby's Penguins

STOCKHOLM -- The last time we saw Sidney Crosby after a real NHL game, tearful eyes and a quivering voice explained the feeling of devastation after losing the final game of the Stanley Cup finals in June.

It's a moment, and a memory, that stung like nothing he had felt before in his meteoric rise to hockey stardom. And it lingered.

"You know what? I thought about it a lot after the season," the Pittsburgh Penguins captain told ESPN.com on the eve of his season opener. "It's one of those weird scenarios where you want to win so bad, and I think the joy you would have from winning the Cup must be unbelievable -- I wouldn't know -- but I felt the other side of it. ...

"I don't want to go through that again, and I'd like to get on that other side, for sure."

More than ever, this is Crosby's team that hits the ice at the Globe Arena on Saturday and Sunday for a pair of regular-season games against the Ottawa Senators. With veterans such as Gary Roberts, Jarkko Ruutu and Ryan Malone no longer around to provide leadership support, the young man wearing the "C" is truly the Penguins' leader, backed by a young core that grew up alongside him.

"Now, with what he's accomplished and the way he's performed for this organization, it's his team and the timing is perfect," said Penguins GM Ray Shero. "The torch really has been passed from some of the older players that have been here. They did an admirable job, but certainly it's his team now, and you can see that change."

Winger Miroslav Satan, who like Ruslan Fedotenko left Long Island as a free agent to join the Penguins this offseason, senses a young leader who is comfortable in his skin.

"From the short time I've been here, he handles everything beautifully, the captaincy and the role that he has on the team," said Satan, who begins the season on Crosby's right side. "To be a leader at such a young age, it's amazing; he matured so quickly and he's ready to fulfill that role."

Fedotenko quickly saw that leadership in action.

"A couple of days after I signed, [Crosby] text messaged me and said, 'Welcome to the team,'" said Fedotenko, Crosby's other winger to start the season. "It was very neat. I didn't expect that. Not every captain would do that. It was a veteran move. I was excited to talk to him. It was very nice of him."

Crosby's text messaging isn't limited to teammates. When Jonathan Toews was named captain of the Chicago Blackhawks this offseason, the 20-year-old forward got a surprise message from Crosby. From one young captain to another.

"He sent me a text congratulating me," Toews told ESPN.com last month. "That was pretty cool for me. I'm a huge fan of him and how he plays the game."

That's the ambassador side of Crosby that's been present from the moment the Penguins won the draft lottery in July 2005. Along with Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, the two stars came into the league together three years ago and have been the poster boys of the post-lockout NHL in every sense of the word.

Defenseman Brooks Orpik, himself a key leader on the Penguins, saw that Crosby, even as a teenager, was ready for that kind of pressure right from day one.

"I couldn't believe how mature he was as an 18-year-old when he came in," Orpik said. "He's obviously a little more mature now, but he just leads in a pretty quiet way. Just the way he approaches things and how prepared he is, that's something that rubs off on everybody else -- to see how focused he is."

Malone, now with the Tampa Bay Lightning, told ESPN.com's Scott Burnside this week that he was surprised by Crosby's work ethic. Sometimes, talented players will cut corners a bit in practice or preparation. But after a long road trip, Crosby set the tone, even if it was just an optional skate, Malone said.

"He was the first one to put his skates on and go out there for a little bit," Malone said.

Said Orpik: "I think the biggest thing with him is that he's so consistent every day. He doesn't take a day off. He's a guy that, every once in a while, you catch yourself staring at him, just watching what he does because he's so good."

At some point, "Sid The Kid" won't do anymore as the moniker for the Penguins' captain. But right now, despite the fact that he's already beginning his fourth NHL season this weekend, the nickname doesn't lie.

He still is a kid.

"He just turned 21 on Aug. 7," Shero said. "You can imagine when he's 27 years old how good he's going to be. To me, it's quite amazing. I think that has been overlooked, how young he is and what he's accomplished in such a short period of time at such a young age."

At an age when most of his contemporaries are trying to crack their first NHL lineups, Crosby needs only six points to crack the 300-point plateau.

Perhaps the best way to underline what he's accomplished so far is to compare him to fellow star centers Vincent Lecavalier and Joe Thornton, both in the prime of Hall of Fame careers. And both, like Crosby, were 18-year-old rookies with huge expectations after being taken first overall in the draft. Thornton put up seven points in his rookie year, albeit in limited ice time; Lecavalier had 28. But Crosby was the youngest player in NHL history to reach the 100-point plateau.

Overall, Thornton put up 108 points in his first three seasons; Lecavalier 146. Crosby carries 294 into his fourth season.

"For 21, he really has done a lot in a short time," his father, Troy Crosby, told ESPN.com. "But he's always been fast-tracked his entire career, his whole life. It's always been that way."

When it was pointed out that some people may forget just how young he still is, Crosby certainly didn't blame them.

"I mean, I don't feel 21 with what I've gone through, to be honest," Crosby said. "I still am pretty young by NHL standards, but I think what I've gone through so far has probably enabled me to mature just like a lot of guys in here.

"We've all learned things pretty quickly because of what we've gone through together."

All grown up at 21.

"He's been in the media spotlight for a long time," said Troy Crosby. "So because of that, maybe you forget he's that young. His buddies back home, some of them are in second- or third-year university. Here's Sidney, going in his fourth NHL season as a team captain. Sometimes, you have to sit back and say, 'Wow.'

"But by no means do I think he's satisfied at all. There's still lots of work to be done."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.