Bet on this pair: Crosby, Malkin next in long line of great duos

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As they were taking different paths to the same platform of stardom with the Penguins, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were vaguely aware of each other.

Crosby, already a celebrity in his native Canada in his early teens, began to hear that there was another special player in Russia besides gregarious Alex Ovechkin.

Malkin heard about Crosby through an agent.

The two got their first real glimpse of each other when Crosby and Team Canada beat Malkin and the Russian squad, 6-1, in the World Junior Championships Jan. 4, 2005, in Grand Forks, N.D.

"I could tell," Crosby said of Malkin's talent.

Little did Crosby and Malkin know that a little more than three years later they would make up perhaps the top dynamic duo in the NHL this season with a chance to join the top handful of such pairs of teammates since the league's major expansion 41 years ago.

"In the postseason, they are probably the one-two punch that stands out," said Bill Bergofin, senior vice president of marketing and promotion for Versus, the NHL's cable network in the United States and someone who knows at least one type of value to having two such prolific players on one team.

Crosby, 20, and Malkin, 21, have taken the Penguins into the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Game 2 against the New York Rangers is this afternoon at Mellon Arena.

Although they are different in many ways -- Malkin is tall and wiry, Crosby more of a bulldog; Malkin is shy and cautious with using English, Crosby is the accommodating face of the NHL -- the two centers give the Penguins the type of talent on four skates few teams have had.

The gold standard, particularly among pairs of centers, is record-keeper Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, who led Edmonton to four Stanley Cups in the 1980s and played together later with the Rangers. As teammates, they combined for seven Art Ross trophies as NHL scoring champion and eight Hart trophies as league MVP -- all won by Gretzky.

Close behind are former Penguins linemates Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, who were on the franchise's two Stanley Cup teams in the early 1990s and as teammates combined for six Art Ross and two Hart trophies, as well as a collection of other hardware when they weren't on a roster together.

Crosby, the first overall pick in 2005 after the Penguins won the NHL draft lottery, stepped into the league immediately as barely an 18-year-old and, in his second season, 2006-07, won the Art Ross and Hart trophies.

Malkin was selected second overall, behind Ovechkin, a year earlier but could not get away from his hometown team and out of Russia until the summer before the 2006-07 season.

Having teammates who are among the top players in the league and who are centers presents a stiff challenge for opponents defensively as they try to counter two dangerous lines.

"Good teams need two good centers on the first two lines," Malkin said.

When a team has two great centers, things can get even more interesting.

Centers Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg became teammates in Quebec and, after the franchise moved to Colorado, led the Avalanche to two Cups and won two Hart trophies and one Art Ross among them.

Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov carried Detroit to three Cups, with Fedorov picking up the Hart in 1994.

Another set of top-echelon linemates was Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, who helped the New York Islanders win four consecutive Cups in the 1980s, and Trottier won an Art Ross and a Hart.

Going back further, to the 1960s and '70s, and stretching to include an unconventional center-defenseman pair, Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr were magic for Boston, winning two Stanley Cups and combining for seven Art Ross and five Hart trophies.

Will Crosby and Malkin be as good as those twosomes?

"They're still young players in the league," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "They've got a ways to go for a full comparison with these guys. That's the challenge for them as young players, to become great young players.

"Steve Yzerman was a great player, but it took him a while to get to where he was recognized as a complete, all-around player that won a Stanley Cup. I think what personifies Sakic and Yzerman were they were great young players who turned into winners.

"There's such things as great players, and then there's winners. I think these guys want to be winners."

For much of their short time together so far, Crosby outshined his sometime linemate, Malkin. But when Crosby missed 28 games the second half of this season to injury, Malkin moved to center for an extended time and surged. He nearly overtook Ovechkin for the scoring championship, finishing with 106 points to the Washington star's 112, and thrust himself into contention for the Hart Trophy.

It was an opening for Malkin to get more recognition, too.

"You look at Sidney, he's a brand unto himself," said Brian Jennings, NHL executive vice president of marketing.

"Now you're seeing, when Sidney was injured, 'Geno' had the spotlight on him and people saw what a gifted hockey player he is. As he becomes more comfortable with the language and in Pittsburgh, I do think the combination of Crosby and Malkin is as powerful as any team has in the league."

Tampa Bay linemates Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis were the "it" pair earlier this decade when they led the Lightning to the 2004 Stanley Cup. While they sit out this spring as Tampa Bay regroups, Crosby and Malkin can take aim at being the top dynamic duo.

But Lecavalier and St. Louis have something Crosby and Malkin are going to need if they are to take their place among the top pairs in the NHL since expansion -- a championship.

"That's the ultimate goal. That's why they're champions," Crosby said. "You have to be a winner."

Teammate Sergei Gonchar, a veteran defenseman who is Malkin's landlord, foresees the two young stars getting their names etched on the Cup.

"Those two have everything," he said. "They're young. They have all the skills in the world. They have the desire. So yeah, they may be another duo that can lead the way for a long time.

"Those guys are improving all the time. They're getting better. They need some time. You have to remember, one guy is third year in the league and another guy in his second. They have a lot of time. They have a good chance to win it."

That's assuming the Penguins, in the age of the salary cap, can keep them together for what could be the next 15 years or more.

Shero is going to try.

"We're fortunate this organization has those guys, guys who give us our identity as a franchise," he said.

They will have to learn to divvy the responsibility, which might not be as easy as it sounds, even for such even-tempered players.

"When Crosby was out, Malkin surprised us all to carry them for so long. He elevated himself to another level," Versus studio analyst and former NHL player Brian Engblom said. "The next thing they learn is how to both be great at the same time. I think that's difficult, too."

If Crosby and Malkin remain with the Penguins and meet even a solid portion of their potential, it could be a pairing for the ages.

"Right now they're looking like two Hall of Famers," Penguins senior advisor for hockey operations and former coach and general manager Ed Johnston boasted. "Two 20-year-old kids that are Hall of Famers. It's not too often you can put that status on anybody.

"You might with a guy like Sid because, you might think you've got an automatic Hall of Famer. Now all of a sudden you've got a guy like Malkin, you've got two Hall of Famers. It's amazing."


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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