PITTSBURGH — Mika Zibanejad would love to give a pair of his childhood idols a long summer.
Growing up in Sweden, the Ottawa Senators’ 20-year-old rookie was enamoured with everything about the Pittsburgh Penguins.
First, he looked up to Mario Lemieux, who now just happens to be the owner of the Penguins team he’s aiming to eliminate from the second round of the playoffs. Then, he watched in awe from afar as Sidney Crosby made his mark in the NHL. That’s the same Crosby he shared the ice with Tuesday night in the opening of the best-of-seven second round playoff series.
“As a young guy, especially for me, it’s a bit special,” Zibanejad said before the puck dropped Tuesday. “I’ve been following those guys for a long time now. The Penguins were one of my favourite teams growing up. But at the same time, I’ve faced these guys before, so now that whole star-struck thing, or whatever you want to call it, is gone.
“Especially since we got through the first round and after playing so many games this year, it’s an opportunity to go out there and measure yourself against them.”
Zibanejad was born in April of 1993, one month after Super Mario returned to the Penguins’ lineup after two months of radiation treatments to deal with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Lemieux scored 69 goals and 160 points in only 60 games that season.
Zibanejad was four when Lemieux retired for the first time, five when Lemieux was approved as Penguins majority owner and seven when Lemieux returned to the game. Zibanejad was a teenager when Crosby was drafted by the Penguins and moved into Lemieux house for his rookie season in 2006-07, the same campaign when Lemieux retired for good.
“Lemieux was the big idol when I was a kid and when Crosby came up, I was only 14 or 15 or whatever, so he was one of the players I was always looking at,” said Zibanejad.
“It’s always fun to face those guys and see what you’re made of. It’s a bit different now when you play against them. It’s not a thing you think about, it’s just another opponent. He’s obviously one of the greatest in the game right now and you just have to make sure you try to win every battle.”