NASHVILLE – The first 100 years of the NHL have been filled with iconic images, from Bobby Orr’s leap to Gretzky’s tears.
For there isn’t a more appropriate way to convey how these three championships they’ve won for the Pittsburgh Penguins since 2009 are born of two fathers: The hulking 30-year-old Russian who skates like a freight train on one side, and the 29-year-old from Cole Harbour who skates like nothing can stop him from achieving glory on the other. In some ways, total opposites. Yet, together, they carry the championship with the help of the other.
They are Gretzky and Messier. They are Mario and Jagr. They are the foundation for everything the Pittsburgh Penguins build towards a championship team, for they are the reason the Pittsburgh Penguins know that no matter what adversity visits them, they can be a championship team.
“They’re generational players. They’re different players, but they’re both elite in their own way,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “I don’t know that you could find two better people to build a team around than these two guys.”
GM Jim Rutherford took over the Penguins in 2014 knowing that with Malkin and Crosby there, he could win another Stanley Cup. And now he’s won two with them, and couldn’t stop singing their praises on Sunday night after their Game 6 win over the Nashville Predators.
“In Sid’s case, I think now we can talk about him being in those top two, three, four guys of all-time. He’s a special player. He’s a special person. He’s won three Cups now. Two Conn Smythe trophies back to back. He’s in that group for me,” he said of Crosby, who was recently named as one of the Top 100 NHL players of all-time.
Malkin, infamously, wasn’t.
“You’d think that Geno could get into the top 100, wouldn’t ya? Maybe we can vote again and get him in the top 101 this year. I mean … wow,” said Rutherford. “I’ll just leave that alone for now. That was so disappointing for me, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.”
But that’s Crosby and Malkin for you: In many ways equals, in other ways it’s like they’re in different area codes.
There have been times in their careers when Malkin and Crosby were used as linemates, but in the last few seasons its been the Crosby Line and the Malkin Line.
The former has Sid playing with a rotating cast of young player, dispelling the notion that he “can’t play with everyone” by meshing with the likes of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel during these Cup wins.
The latter has Geno playing with Phil Kessel and a few other wingers, providing near-constant offense and at times dominating play.
Occasionally, hockey fans and punditry will get all “Lennon vs. McCartney” with these guys, especially the Malkin fans who grumble about him constantly being in the shadow of Crosby. Like, for example, when Malkin ended up leading the NHL playoffs in points (28) this postseason but Crosby won the Conn Smythe with one fewer point – his second playoff MVP award in two seasons when falling short of the team lead in points. (Malkin won the Conn Smythe after the Penguins’ first Cup.)
But if Crosby had a Conn Smythe ballot, who would he vote for?
“I think Geno comes to mind right away,” he said.
The thing that the Team Geno and Team Sid folks always miss is that one is essential to the other’s success.
Sid doesn’t accomplish what he has in the NHL without Malkin, and vice versa. To have an opponent worrying about a second greatest of all-time player in the lineup changes life for both Malkin and Crosby. It’s a luxury no other star has in the modern NHL on the level that Malkin and Crosby have it – with due respect for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
The other aspect of their coexistence is that they push each other more than any player in the League could push them. This is something Sullivan’s witnessed in overseeing their consecutive championships.
“I really believe in just my time here with both guys, they’ve grown to be appreciative for one another and how they help each other have success and this team. And so when there are nights when maybe Sid might not have his A game, that Geno steps up and helps this team win and vice versa. There are other nights where Geno might not have his A game and Sid steps up and makes a big play to help this team win,” he said.
“They’re two players of a very select few in the league that single-handedly have an ability to change the outcomes of games. That’s how good they are. But I do believe that just in my time in Pittsburgh with them, I think they’re appreciative of one another. I would have to think they are.”
If there is a line to be drawn between Malkin and Crosby, it’s in leadership.
This isn’t to say that Malkin isn’t one, because he’s gotten more emphatic and vocal behind the scenes as he’s grown older. It’s just to say that Crosby will go down as one of the greatest players to ever wear the ‘C,’ because he embodies everything you’d ever want in a captain.
“I think he’s now one of the best to ever play the game. To win three Stanley Cups, and two Conn Smythes in a row is pretty good,” said Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, who knows a thing or two about excelling as a Pittsburgh captain.
“He’s one of the best leaders to ever play the game.”
Lemieux pointed to Crosby’s Game 5 performance in the Stanley Cup Final, in which his undeniable drive to win – three assists, a critical penalty call earned and just overall dominance – propelled the Penguins to an essential victory.
“He made a statement in that game. He could feel like we were getting close to the Stanley Cup. He played like it,” said Lemieux.
The debate over Crosby’s status as the best hockey player in the world has been long-settled.
“He’s the best player in the world, there’s just no question about it. The way that he rises up to the challenge when the stakes are the highest, it’s just fun to see. He just drives our engine here,” said center Matt Cullen.
Rutherford prefers to see him as an engineer.
“You gotta get on the train with him, or you’re going to get run over,” said the Pittsburgh GM. “When you come to the rink you better be ready to go to work. And he’s the guy who leads it.”
Malkin is a goofball. A delightful, wonderful goofball.
For all we know about Sidney Crosby after the Stanley Cup parade, he’ll be placed back inside his cabinet to recharge his batteries until it’s time to power up again for the 2017-18 season.
Malkin? He’s going to bring the Cup somewhere in Russia to take silly photos with it. And then he’s going to go on a boat, catch an absurdly large fish and Instagram it. Because that’s what he does.
Again, it’s “Lennon vs. McCartney.” Sid is the next-level musical genius, heightening hockey is something near spiritual; Geno is his equal in many ways, but regarded as “the fun one” to Crosby’s etherial leader.
Crosby drinks from the Cup.
Malkin has a champagne fight with Phil Kessel.
— Grady Sas (@GradySas) June 12, 2017
You get the idea.
“It’s amazing team. We have great chance to win every year,” said Malkin, after skating the Cup for the third time.
Malkin is signed through 2022. Crosby is signed through 2025. Their legacy as one of the best duos in the history of hockey is cemented with a third Stanley Cup together. And yet the reason they thrive, the reason they succeed, the reason they get to place their lips on the Holy Grail after two months of battle is because it’s never going to be enough for either of them.
“We just still young, we still hungry. And of course, we want more,” said Malkin.
“You can’t match this. This is what it’s all about,” said Crosby. “You have a small window to play and to have a career, and I feel fortunate, but I also understand how difficult it is, so you just want to try to make the best of it.”
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have made the best of it, and in the process, made the Pittsburgh Penguins the best in hockey for the third time. The championship poise this team exhibited in winning four tough rounds is born from them.The confidence that allowed this team to win two Game 7s and close out the Nashville Predators for the Cup begins with them. The notion that someone will make a play when necessary to win a key game comes from the fact that Malkin and Crosby are two players who usually make those plays.
“We had a group of guys who knew how to win,” said Rutherford.
Including these two:
Sometimes, the pictures just tell the story.
Especially among the immortals.
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