Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
PITTSBURGH — This is how it works with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“It’s a good competition between me and Sid,” the usually quiet Malkin said. “It’s like, Sid scores, I want to score two.
“Sid scores one more, I want to score one more.
“Sid scores a hat trick, I stop.”
The crowd surrounding Geno Malkin on media day at the Stanley Cup laugh along with the big Pittsburgh centre. The other centre, at the next podium, not as big, not as funny, the bigger name, the bigger star, hears the laughter and looks around.
“That’s Geno,” said Crosby, “he’s a laid-back guy but he’s pretty funny.”
Why not laugh and smile and enjoy life if you’re Crosby and Malkin. They have been teammates for 11 seasons in Pittsburgh. They have won two Stanley Cups together, lost another. This is now a legacy opportunity for them: A chance for a third Stanley Cup.
Win this Cup and it’s one better than owner Mario Lemieux won as a superstar player. Win this Cup and it’s one fewer than Wayne Gretzky won in Edmonton. Win this Cup and it ties Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in the salary cap era with three titles. Win this Cup and it’s the first back-to-back NHL champion in almost 20 years.
Malkin leads the playoffs in scoring. Crosby is second. They have both won Conn Smythe Trophies. Crosby has two Hart Trophies, Malkin one. Malkin has a Calder Trophy, Crosby doesn’t. They each have two scoring titles. It goes back and forth that way, these great hockey gifts who came in consecutive NHL drafts.
“One day Pittsburgh Penguins draft me,” said Malkin “One day they draft Sidney Crosby. It’s two lucky days.”
Lucky to be here, to be together, to be the 1-2 punch nobody in hockey can compare with. This isn’t anything close to a perfect Penguins team. The two legacy centres though — the one who made the Top 100 list and the one who was somehow left off — are the test for the Nashville (no centre) Predators. And they feed off each other, not just with lines off the ice, but with a daily drive they each demonstrate in their own and very different way.
“Like Gretzky said one day about (Mark) Messier. Small competition every day between him and Messier. Who’s better today? Who’s better tomorrow? I don’t want to be like No. 1 (centre) in Carolina or something like that. Not that I want to say bad things about Carolina,” Malkin said. “I want to be better than Sid. I want to be better every day. Every practice, he is the most professional player I have ever seen. He wants to be better every day.”
And still this hockey obsessed town is more about Lemieux than anyone else. His name is on statues, buildings, scholarships, awards. No one can ever be a larger figure than Mario. That’s what makes this week so remarkable and potentially historic. In this hockey town where the franchise was built by Lemieux and saved by Lemieux, Crosby and Malkin could well surpass him.
“If I win one more, Mario wins one more,” he said. “He’d have four (actually five, two as player, three as owner). I’ll never beat him. I can’t. I don’t think about that. Mario is a hero here. We’re all proud of Mario. Amazing player, amazing guy.”
Jim Rutherford inherited Crosby and Malkin when he signed on as general manager of the Penguins. Half of the teams in the NHL are searching for a first-line centre. He has two of the best.
“With Sid and Geno, they are carving out very special legacies for themselves,” he said. “Let’s take it back a step. Winning one Stanley Cup is unbelievable. It’s very hard to win one. Now these guys have two. They have a chance to win another one. And in my opinion, they have a chance to win maybe another one after that. It’s not like they’re slowing down.”
Crosby is known for his concussion history but it is Malkin who has been hurt more the past four seasons. Crosby has only missed 16 games the past four years; the larger, thicker Malkin has averaged 20 lost games a season. But both are healthy now, and ready for the challenge of the Predators.
“It’s going to be hard,” Malkin said.
That’s what he said about this series with Nashville. He wasn’t being sportsmanlike. He called it “the biggest challenge of my life.
“I’ve never played a team that had six good defenceman. Usually, it’s like one pair. This is hard for us. A good challenge for me, for Sid.”
And if he has to play 1A to Crosby’s 1, well, Malkin is happy to play that part.
“I feel like I’m the guy here,” said Malkin with a giant, playful smile. “People love me. I come to restaurants, people want to shake hands. It’s fine for me. I signed a big deal here because I feel we can win every year. I want to play with Sid a long time ... I’m lucky to play on a team with Sidney Crosby.”
And the ever polite and focused Crosby says he’s lucky to play on a team with Geno Malkin.
Sidney Crosby (87) and Evgeni Malkin (71) pose with the the Prince of Wales Trophy in Pittsburgh, Thursday, May 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
WATCH AND LEARN
Matt Cullen doesn’t so much practice with the Pittsburgh Penguins as watch them practice. And why wouldn’t he?
He likes to fixate on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when they practice. He’s rather amazed by his front-line teammates, what they do, and how hard they push themselves, how they test the limits of their immense talents.
“I’ve been around long enough to know there’s not a lot of guys like that,” said the 40-year-old fourth-line centre.
With Crosby, though, Cullen is impressed with sense of the occasion.
“He can sense where he’s at and he has this real grasp of the history of the game,” said Cullen. “Sid’s a guy who loves the game more than anybody else. And he follows it more closely than anybody. He, more than anybody, understands the position we’re in.”
Malkin isn’t so easily defined, although now that he’s married and with a young son, he is showing a more mature side of himself.
“It’s a personality thing,” said Cullen. “They’re different people. Geno is a little bit more of a laid back guy. But in saying that, when the game starts, that guy is as competitive as it gets.”
Malkin leads the playoffs with 24 points. Crosby has 20. Combined, the four Nashville centres have scored 15 points in the post-season.