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Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) carries the puck into the offensive zone against the Minnesota Wild during the second period at the PPG Paints Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports (Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports)
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) carries the puck into the offensive zone against the Minnesota Wild during the second period at the PPG Paints Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports (Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports)

Seven Maple Leafs rookies excited to take on Sidney Crosby Add to ...

It’s a matchup many of them have pondered for years.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs face the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night – on Hockey Night in Canada – it will be the first time that Toronto’s seven rookies get a chance to play against Sidney Crosby in an NHL game.

He is a player they have watched, mostly on television, become this generation’s generational superstar, someone who has won scoring titles, Hart trophies, Stanley Cups and Olympic gold so regularly he has set an almost unmatchable standard.

Crosby, now 29, has been red hot of late, too, scoring nine goals in eight games and leading the NHL in points per game since missing the first six matches of the season with a concussion.

Crosby represents something more than just another talented opponent to most young players around the league, however.

He has, for the past 12 seasons, been someone they have admired for everything from his work ethic to his skating ability and incredible on-ice success. He is someone they have tried to emulate.

They’ve watched YouTube videos of Crosby’s exploits, attempting to learn from the best. They’ve bought tickets to see him play and marvelled at his talent.

On Saturday, they’ll finally share the ice with him.

The Globe and Mail asked the seven Leafs rookies this week what it meant to them to go up against the Penguins captain for the first time. Most were excited:

Connor Brown, 22, from Toronto

It’s pretty awesome. He’s been around a long time and he’s been the best player in the game. It’s going to be cool. When you play against good player like that, you try not to get sidetracked and you focus on the task at hand, but it will obviously be pretty awesome. I remember watching him in his rookie year [when Brown was 11 years old], how well he did. He’s become a huge ambassador for the game.

Zach Hyman, 24, from Toronto

He scored that one goal that everybody remembers in the [2010] Olympics. He’s probably the best player in the NHL, best player in the world. It’s going to be fun. It’s a good challenge. But when you’re on the ice, you just see him as another player that you’ve got to watch and play hard against. You have to be aware of players like that, but you don’t like see them as these idols or whatever. You just see them as other players. You know that you can compete against them.

Mitch Marner, 19, from Markham, Ont.

It’s pretty crazy. Most of us young guys watched him growing up and being the star he is and leading every Team Canada team and Pittsburgh. So it’s going to be very exciting to finally line up against him. [I admire] his whole game. Everyone wants to be the same as him, work as hard as he does every game and have the same impact that he does.

Auston Matthews, 19, from Scottsdale, Ariz.

He’s been the best player in the league since he walked in so it’ll be fun to play against a player kind of on another planet like him. I think everybody pays close attention to him; he’s the best player in the world for a reason. He’s obviously had an amazing career – he makes things happen and he’s fun to watch. He’s done it all already. I remember watching him play when they came to Phoenix when he was younger, and he scored a backhand goal that was from his back. [Matthews was 10.] It was nice to be in the stands to watch that one.

William Nylander, 20, from Stockholm

To play against one of the best players in the world? Or the best player in the world? It’s going to be fun. You see the way he plays every night, night in and night out. He’s a player I’ve been looking up to. I remember watching him in the [2009] playoffs in Washington [when Nylander was 13 and his father, Michael, was playing his final NHL season for the Capitals], where him and Ovie [Alex Ovechkin] both got hat tricks. [Saturday’s game] will be big for sure.

Nikita Soshnikov, 23, from Nizhny Tagil, Russia

I haven’t played against Sidney Crosby. I’m going to compete against him every single shift, if I have a chance. You always learn from those players. I just know he’s a great player. Best in the world probably.

Nikita Zaitsev, 25, from Moscow

I follow hockey actually for like 20 years so I know who Crosby is for sure. I don’t think [it’s a special game]. I played against him already with national team, so?

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