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Sidney Crosby celebrates after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final on May 26, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

They ripped him for being a no-show for the press after a tough overtime loss in Game 5.

They doubted his ability to rise to the occasion and win two in a row to save the series.

One pundit even blasted him as a bad leader, of all things.

Sidney Crosby proved the naysayers wrong with two marvellous games. Now, for the first time in seven years, the Pittsburgh Penguins and their captain are finally headed back to the Stanley Cup final.

This is a different Crosby than the one who won it all in 2009. Sid is not a kid. His beard, while not lush, is bushier. His game remains dynamic but calmer, with fewer eruptions at officials and opponents.

If he looks wearier on the ice, it's because a little weariness is deserved. Crosby is a little more than two months from his 29th birthday, and the years between hoisting his one and only Cup and today have been downright brutal, filled with the battle scars from skating the NHL's gauntlet again and again.

At age 23, he missed half a season and all of the postseason with postconcussion symptoms after taking a David Steckel shoulder to the head in the 2011 Winter Classic.

At 24, he played only 22 regular-season games as he continued to mend. Again, the Penguins bowed out in Round 1.

The 2012-13 lockout gave him a chance to get healthy, and he returned as the best player in the game, scoring at a 128-point pace – a career high – until taking a slap shot to the face that broke his jaw. He had titanium plates screwed to the bone, ate a liquid diet for weeks and was back on the ice in time to help the Penguins push all the way to the conference finals.

Crosby was spoiled early in his career. He played in two finals in his first four NHL seasons – two marvellous series against the remnants of that old Detroit Red Wings powerhouse. But, for seven years, a Round 3 sweep in 2013 was as close as the Penguins would get.

After Thursday's Game 7 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, Crosby admitted he had gained a greater appreciation for how hard it is to grind past 14 or 15 other teams for 100 games to get a chance to play for a Cup.

"You need a lot of things to go right," he said.

In Pittsburgh, much has gone wrong. There has been bickering between ownership and management. There was a controversial regime change, with Ray Shero pushed out and Jim Rutherford airlifted in from Carolina to serve as GM. Mike Johnston was then a poor fit behind the bench – his players derided him privately as a "junior coach" – and lasted all of 110 games.

Add in a diminished, battered Crosby, and it was a recipe for what happened: three first-round exits, two blown series leads in Round 2 and that sweep in the third round by a Boston team that was then thumped in the finals.

For years, the Penguins were never close.

Now, they're four wins away.

Crosby didn't have a point, but he was at his best in Game 7. He was all over the puck – setting up scoring chances, collecting rebounds, driving to the net, forcing Tampa's behemoth defenceman Victor Hedman into a chase around the goal.

When the critics call out that he's not the Crosby of old, they are likely right – in a sense. All of the evidence from the past two years is that he has been downgraded to one of the best players in the league instead of being – as he once was – in his own untouchable class. His points per 60 minutes, for one, have dipped this season to a new low – a telltale shift that has gone on long enough that it can't be dismissed as a blip.

Age comes for everyone.

But Crosby remains a brilliant star. And barring poor health, there's no reason his game can't translate into old age – by NHL standards – the same way Joe Thornton's has with the San Jose Sharks. This is Crosby's 11th season, but he may well have another decade as a difference-maker, using his smarts to excel in new ways.

Where critics really miss is in tearing down Crosby's intangibles. This is a player with an unrelenting work ethic, one who has pushed through more pain and adversity than almost anyone in the league to get back on the ice and bleed for the Penguins in these situations, often with long odds against them.

Since 2009, he leads the entire league in points per game in the regular season (1.30) by a large margin. He is the only player who has played more than 50 postseason games and produced better than a point per game. He has scored two golden goals for Canada at the Olympics and five game winners in the NHL playoffs.

If that's not your definition of leadership, then you've settled on a fairy tale.

The fact is it's hard to win in this NHL. There are 30 teams and more parity than in any other major professional sport. Even a series as lopsided as this one was can drag into a one-goal Game 7 because of the nature of the game. You have to be good and you have to be lucky, and few have had as poor luck as Crosby since 2009.

That this is Thornton's first trip to the final in 18 seasons speaks more to how tough it is to get there than a personal weakness. That Crosby waited seven years to get back isn't a sign of his.

The reality is that by the end of this series, the Penguins will have played in more playoff games than any other team since Crosby entered the league. More than Chicago. More than Detroit. Win or lose against the Sharks, Crosby has already led them to greatness – a sustained greatness.

Even under Mario Lemieux, the Penguins never posted a decade like this, with at least 130 playoff games, 70 playoff wins and three runs to the final.

That's the bar Crosby cleared when they beat Tampa on Thursday night, surpassing some of the accomplishments of his mentor and friend.

That's why the arguments against what he is and what he has accomplished are easily melted away, exposed as the clickbait bunkum that unfortunately becomes prevalent when great players' teams fall short in the postseason.

Whatever Crosby had to accomplish to prove the doubters wrong, he did it long ago.

All he showed in this series is that he isn't finished yet.