Gretzky-Messier. Lemieux-Francis. Sakic-Forsberg. The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup twice in three seasons with Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter patrolling the middle.
Beginning with the Pittsburgh Penguins meeting the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final on Monday (8 p.m. ET) at PPG Paints Arena, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have the chance to be immortalized as part of that group. Having captured the Stanley Cup twice as teammates and accumulated two Conn Smythe trophies, three Hart Memorial trophies and four scoring titles between them, each has already secured his respective place in the Hall of Fame.
But ask either superstar what motivates him, and each will inevitably take a moment to give a nod to the other.
“When he’s out there, when he’s going, you want to follow that up,” Crosby said of Malkin. “It gives you confidence as a player when you see someone out there with that capability, because I don’t think you put as much pressure on yourself knowing that this guy is capable of changing the game with one play.”
How the Penguins reversed their franchise fortunes by drafting two superstars — Malkin second overall in 2004, Crosby first in 2005 — is already etched in hockey history. Since drafting the pair, the Penguins have gone from declaring bankruptcy in 1998 to becoming a model NHL franchise.
That stunning turnaround is due largely to two players who contrast as much in their playing styles as their personalities. A possession-dominant hockey savant who dared opponents to take the puck away, Crosby’s maturity made him a natural choice when, at 19, he was named Pittsburgh’s captain in 2007. A freewheeling, human highlight-reel who has separated fans from their seats his entire career, Malkin has been the off-ice joker to Crosby’s straight man. Vince Vaughn to his Owen Wilson.
“He’s a laid-back guy. He’s pretty funny, he likes to have a good time, but when he gets on the ice, I think you can tell how fired up he is,” Crosby said. “He plays a pretty emotional game. His game is skill, but physically he’s not afraid to engage. I think when teams challenge him physically, he’s not one to shy away from it.”
While Pittsburgh’s supporting cast has changed from season to season, Crosby and Malkin have taken turns dominating the league. Between 2007 and 2014, they each won two scoring titles over a span of eight seasons. That’s a Penguins center leading the league in scoring every other season. In pursuit of their second straight Stanley Cup this year, Malkin leads the league with 24 playoff points, followed by — yup — Crosby, with 20.
But as Crosby established himself as the face of the NHL, questions inevitably surfaced about how much Malkin enjoyed being the second-best player on his own team.
“I feel I’m the guy here, too. People love me. I come to restaurant, people want to shake hands. It’s fun for me,” said Malkin. “I signed a big deal here because I feel we can win every year. I want to play with Sid most time. It’s good competition between me and Sid.”
That’s what makes this pair so dangerous. This isn’t simply two gifted teammates competing at a level unattainable to almost anyone on the planet. It’s a competition between dueling hockey legends.
“He score, I want to score, too. If he scores one more, I want to score one more, too. If he score hat trick, I stop,” said Malkin, joking. “I want to be better every day. Because I watch Sid every practice, he is so much professional guy. Most professional I’ve ever seen. I want to be the same. I want to be professional and be better every day.”
All of which leaves the Predators with one big question: How do they stop the NHL’s most dominant one-two punch at center?
It’s a task the Predators are uniquely qualified to take on. With a dynamic top-four combination of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm, Nashville has arguably the only blue line in the league with enough speed and talent to corral Crosby and Malkin. The series will likely hinge on who wins that All-Star matchup.
“Within our team — me and Ryan, P.K. and Roman — we don’t care who has got who,” said Ekholm. “We all know we can play any forward in the league. That’s been a big key for us in the playoffs.”
Ekholm was quick to add the third pairing of Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber could go up against the top lines, too.
“I think it’s a strength of ours,” Ekholm added. “We can put a lot of guys out there against top lines and get the job done. That way we can spread the ice time and keep guys fresh out there.”
Nashville’s powerhouse blue line will be the most challenging unit yet for a Penguins team that has faced a formidable defense at every turn this postseason. Pittsburgh beat a Columbus Blue Jackets blue line led by Seth Jones and Zach Werenski before taking on a Washington Capitals unit as deep as any in the league. In the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators, the Penguins withstood the charge of Erik Karlsson, whose gutsy performance might have established the two-time James Norris Memorial Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenseman.
With an opportunity to add to their respective legacies, Malkin and Crosby now face Nashville’s four horsemen. One more awesome challenge for all-world teammates looking to push each other to yet another level on hockey’s biggest stage.
“I think it will be hardest challenge in my life. I’ve never played a team that has six good defensemen. Usually, you have one Karlsson. They have four Karlssons,” said Malkin. “It’s a good challenge for me, for Sid. But we will see who is better. I’m ready to play. I’m excited. I know it’s not easy, I know it will be hard. We’ll see what we can do.”