Crosby, Penguins one win away from a shot at an absolutely incredible achievement

There's a lot on the line for Sidney Crosby in Game 7. Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire

PITTSBURGH -- Those who have experienced it say it goes in phases. After you win a Stanley Cup, it's a summer of celebration. Then comes a regular season in which an inevitable rough patch emerges when exhaustion kicks in.

"You crash sometime in November, December or January," said former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009. "You don't have any energy. You're walking zombies."

But the best champs persevere and then the playoffs arrive -- another phase and a new life.

"I remember thinking that no team is going to be able to beat us," said forward Dan Cleary, part of the most recent team to advance to consecutive Stanley Cup finals when the Detroit Red Wings did it in 2008 and 2009. "I wasn't so much worried about rest or fatigue or energy. Your tank fills up immediately."

The long playoff run has a way of being unforgiving about draining that tank. Since Cleary's Red Wings fell short of winning the 2009 Stanley Cup, no reigning champion has made it back to the finals.

But Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are tantalizingly close. If they beat the Ottawa Senators in Thursday's (8 p.m. ET) Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, they will take on the Nashville Predators with the Stanley Cup in the balance. And if they make it, as they advance through a mix of sheer will and star power, through a treacherous schedule and loaded injury report, this might go down as Crosby's and the Penguins' most impressive accomplishment.

Factor in two long playoff runs plus World Cup action and he has played in more than 200 games the past two seasons, many at the highest level of competition.

Add it up and this is turning into Crosby's defining playoff run. He and the Penguins just need one more win to give themselves a chance.

"This one would have a lot of Sid's fingerprints, of him willing his team to a Stanley Cup and winning again -- if he did do it," Bylsma said. "There have been injuries and you see him step up and play big in big games. You've seen him step up and answer the bell and lead his team and get it done."

Well, nearly done.

The Penguins missed out on a chance to close out the Senators in Ottawa during a Game 6 in which they controlled play for long stretches.

It was just another reminder that it never comes easy. This is the second consecutive seven-game series for the Penguins, a run of playoff games in which they've needed just about every player on their roster to step in at different times.

"I would say this entire playoff has given us all an appreciation of what a challenge it is to get back on top," Penguins forward Matt Cullen said Wednesday. "A lot of good players, a lot of good teams. But it's awfully tight. It's always tight. It seems like every series is such a challenge."

Yet they've found a way to persevere. Crosby is at the heart of it, but he's getting major help from Evgeni Malkin, who transformed into beast mode at times in Game 6, one of the few players in hockey who can physically take over a game. Phil Kessel continues to play with a heightened intensity. Matt Murray has been strong since taking over in goal.

Along with the star power, the advantage this group has is its success in Game 7s. They know exactly what to expect and what it takes to win.

"They won a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup final on the road," Cleary said. "This Game 7 at home isn't going to faze those guys."

Cleary believes the same can't be said for the Senators.

"After you play three or four Game 7s, you know how it is," he said. "You don't have any nerves, you just have excitement."

Crosby registered an assist in Game 7 against the Washington Capitals in the conference semifinals, finishing that series with three points in the final three games. He entered Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals with a three-game goal streak against the Senators, one that was snapped. He has five points in his past four playoff games.

He has been up to the challenge as the games have gotten bigger. His teammates expect it. So do those who know him best.

"You watch him play now, they're trying to take his head off and he's having no part of it. He's leading the way," Bylsma said. "If he were able to win another Stanley Cup and have three Stanley Cups, he would automatically be in the conversation to which there is maybe one or two other people in the conversation."

He'd be in the conversation with the greats. One more win puts him that much closer.