OTTAWA – The stars had sparked the dismantling. A three-assist game from Evgeni Malkin, a second straight two-point performance by Sidney Crosby, and ho-hum, we’ve all seen this movie before.
Mike Sullivan wasn’t even asked about either of the Pittsburgh Penguins bedrock centres in his post-game press conference.
If only we could all make middle age look so seamless and easy.
That’s where Malkin and Crosby are at now – at least in the context of the sport they play – skating down the other side of the hill towards a future where they’ll eventually fade from being dominant forces in the NHL. That day is not today.
“I think me and Sid, we always feel pressure, like every game,” Malkin had said when Pittsburgh trailed the Ottawa Senators 2-1 in this Eastern Conference final, back before they had turned the tables. “I mean, it doesn’t matter, you play against Ottawa or Washington, like we always – we like that, like it’s our life, our hockey life. We come to the rink. We work every practice to score and to help the team to win.”
They have reached the level of greatness where it is almost just assumed that things will unfold this way. That even when the Penguins dig a hole and are forced to dress a Wilkes Barre-esque defence, Nos. 87 and 71 will still find their way.
It shouldn’t be taken for granted. As they sit here one win short of reaching their fourth Stanley Cup final together, in the final weeks of an NHL season defined by a coming youth movement, their continued excellence needs to be celebrated.
They sit 1-2 in playoff scoring this spring and are 2-3 among active players overall.
Even when the Senators minimized their impact through three games of this series, they spoke as if they were trying to hold off winter. They knew something bigger was coming – something like Sunday’s 7-0 spanking that put Pittsburgh on the precipice of advancing.
“It’s really tough on our guys to be able to defend those guys,” said Ottawa coach Guy Boucher. “You know that at some point or another, even if you defend well, they’re going to get their looks. We hope that they get the least possible, but it’s Sidney Crosby and it’s Malkin and it’s (Phil) Kessel, and that’s just what it is. That’s what we have to face.”
They have pulled the Penguins through significantly different circumstances than they faced last spring. That group was deeper, and had Kris Letang constantly getting the puck started up ice, and this one is ravaged by injuries. It is not so well-balanced.
Crosby acknowledged that living through these last few weeks has given him a better understanding of why no team has managed to repeat as Cup champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I think I had that appreciation coming in, but I think just going through it and understanding how tough it is to win, you need some bounces, you need some luck along the way. But we’ve done a great job of just going a game at a time here and embracing those challenges.”
The Penguins of 2009 were hailed because they won a championship with Crosby at age 21 and Malkin at age 22. They are on the other side of the spectrum now. They will turn 30 and 31 this summer – already older than Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe were when they last lifted the Cup as players.
This season, Malkin was older than 80.52 per cent of his peers. Crosby was senior to 75.11 per cent of the players who pulled on an NHL sweater and still carries the unofficial distinction of being the best of the bunch.
“Their skilled guys are very competitive guys,” observed Senators veteran Dion Phaneuf, who has waged innumerable battles with both. “They work hard, they’re hard on the puck, they’re bigger guys that are skilled.
“Sid, he likes to control the puck. If you go to take the puck from him he’s going to want to keep (it).”
This has not been an easy post-season for the Penguins captain, what with the concussion that forced him to miss a game in the Capitals series and the spotty play that followed his return. He’s persevered.
Malkin has already eclipsed his point total from last spring. He is a father now, but keeps a child-like appreciation for the game – playfully pointing at Phaneuf when the Senators defenceman inadvertently had a Brian Dumoulin shot bank off him for the winning goal in Game 4.
“Yeah, I tell him he scored,” said Malkin. “He scored, his skates. I like to play against him. I think he’s like a huge ‘D’ (so) it’s not fun. He’s left me in corner, he’s a physical defenceman, but sometimes I want to joke around with him when he scores goals. Sometimes, he’s tried to talk to me.
“Playoffs, it’s fun and it’s tough.”
They are two months that leave even the top players with little choice but to embrace the struggle.
Sullivan says that Crosby is the fiercest competitor he’s ever been associated with, that his desire to be the best is so insatiable “I’m not sure we can give him enough.” Minutes, matchups, all of it. The Penguins coach has recently provided Malkin with a line that includes Kessel and anonymous left-winger Scott Wilson, a former seventh-round pick who collected his second career playoff goal in Game 5.
“I like it,” said Malkin. “He’s a young guy, he’s hungry.”
There’s an unmistakeable fire burning inside the old faithfuls here as well. It’s just a little more controlled. Because deep down, if they’re being honest, they can’t be sure how many more chances they’ll get as good as this one.