OTTAWA -- That is some game of Can You Top This? that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have going in these Stanley Cup playoffs. If you didn't know better, you would think they are in a competition to be known as the best hockey player in the world.
"That's exactly what they are thinking," Penguins teammate Ryan Whitney said yesterday.
"That's why both are elite players. Both want to be the best. Both have that in them."
There are plenty of reasons the Penguins own a 3-0 series edge against the Ottawa Senators and can squash the last bit of life out of them in Game 4 tonight, but the greatness of Crosby and Malkin has to be near the top of the list. Malkin was the bigger star in Games 1 and 2 at Mellon Arena, getting three points each night and setting up linemate Petr Sykora for three of the prettiest -- not to mention easiest -- goals you'll see. Crosby was the man Monday night in Game 3, breaking not just a 1-1 tie with a huge goal 12 seconds into the third period, but the hearts of the Sens Army, as the Ottawa fans like to call themselves.
You thought Crosby was just going to sit back and give up that "best-player" label without a fight?
Of course, Crosby downplayed that there's anything even remotely going on between him and Malkin. "We both just want to help the team win. I think we both feel responsibility -- especially offensively -- for producing."
Penguins coach Michel Therrien was even more adamant.
"I don't see it as competition between the two at all. Both guys have huge roles and both are taking their game to a new level in the playoffs. Both are great leaders and both want to lead the right way."
What the big deal is, I don't know. In this case, we're talking about healthy competition. As Penguins forward Max Talbot put it, "They're not playing for numbers, those two. They're playing for the team."
Maxime gets no argument here.
But, really, what's wrong with wanting to be the best?
Don't all great players have an ego?
The proud Crosby always has wanted to be the guy. He's a lot like Mario Lemieux that way. It was a little harder to tell with Malkin. At least it was until this season when he stepped up when Crosby went out with a high ankle sprain. Malkin had 20 goals and 26 assists in the 28 games Crosby missed. I'm thinking he loved the starring role.
"The big question a lot of the media has been asking is: 'Can Malkin keep on doing it with Sid back?' " Talbot said. "Believe me, he's kept on doing it."
The Penguins are on the edge of Round 2 of the playoffs because of it, because Malkin has elevated his game to Crosby's extraordinary level.
"Those are probably going to be the two best players I ever play with," Whitney said. "It's just a pleasure to be on the same ice with them."
Therrien can say the same thing; Crosby and Malkin almost certainly will be the two best players he coaches. That has to explain his no-competition-between-the-two stance. He doesn't want to be put into any position where he's even hinting that one is better than the other.
Witness Therrien's handling of the Penguins' power play.
A lot of his critics have spanked him for using Crosby and Malkin on the same unit rather than splitting them and creating two groups that surely would tax even the best of penalty-killers. He could have stayed with Malkin, Sykora and Ryan Malone on one unit -- they were highly successful when Crosby was out -- and put Crosby with Marian Hossa and perhaps Jordan Staal on another group.
But Therrien has played Crosby with Malkin. The results have been mixed. The power play went 3 for 6 in Game 2 but just 1 for 5 in Game 1 and 1 for 8 in Game 3.
It seems obvious Therrien is willing to take a bit less production in order to keep the stars happy.
Just say he's looking at the big picture.
Therrien learned a long time ago that a coach needs to keep his captain on his side, the better to have his back in the dressing room. That's why Crosby always is included in the Penguins' decision-making. Along the way, Therrien also learned you don't offend the other world-class players on your roster. Malkin has reached that status.
If Therrien sent out Malkin, Sykora and Malone first on the power play, that would be like telling Crosby he's on the second unit. If he sent out Crosby's group first, he would be saying the same thing to Malkin. And what happens if the first group gets 80 seconds of power-play time and the second gets only 40?
Therrien doesn't need those headaches.
But there is another way of looking at this:
Any coach would love to have Therrien's problems.
Any coach would love to have two players the caliber of Crosby and Malkin.
Any coach would love to have two stars who want to be called only one thing more than "best player in the world."
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .