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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: Pittsburgh's greatest sports duo looks to cement legacy

| Tuesday, April 10, 2018, 8:17 p.m.
Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby kiss the Stanley Cup after beating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday, June 11, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby kiss the Stanley Cup after beating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday, June 11, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena.

On Wednesday night, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin embark on a quest to lead their Penguins to a third straight NHL playoff title.

Winning three consecutive Stanley Cup championships — and a fourth overall — is an achievement that would no doubt elevate them to the greatest athletic duo in Pittsburgh sports history.

Although I'd argue they already are.

And if such an accomplishment were to be achieved in early June, that legacy would simply be cemented.

Based on an always-scientific Twitter poll I recently conducted, many Pittsburgh sports fans agree.

At the time of this column's submission Tuesday evening, 49 percent of respondents voted that Crosby and Malkin are the best tandem we've ever seen in Pittsburgh sports. Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were tracking at 40 percent, followed by an 8 percent total for John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, and just 2 percent for Dave Parker and Willie Stargell.

I encouraged, and took note of, write-in ideas such as Stargell with Roberto Clemente instead of Parker, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, and the Waner brothers.

Although I'm not sure if folks who remember Big Poison and Little Poison playing are actively on Twitter these days.

I also counted one vote for Frank Coonelly and Bob Nutting twice because I award double points for elite-level sarcasm.

So, with all due credit being given to the football and baseball pairings, let's focus on two questions surrounding the hockey nominees. If you buy the argument that Crosby and Malkin are already a better duo than Jagr and Lemieux: Why?

And how did they make it happen?

Let's start with the "Why" question first.

Three Stanley Cups for Malkin and Crosby versus two for Jagr and Lemieux means a lot. So does that fourth trip to the Cup Final in 2008.

Secondly, Crosby and Malkin have been together twelve years. Jagr and Lemieux only played together for seven.

With the exception of Crosby's 2006 rookie season, the entirety of Crosby's and Malkin's careers have happened in tandem.

Together, they have never missed the playoffs.

As fabulous as Lemieux and Jagr were together, a significant portion of their legacies were forged individually.

For instance, Lemieux had six 100-point seasons under his belt before Jagr came to the league. Jagr totaled 1,921 regular season points in the NHL. Only 633 of those came in years when he was a teammate of Lemieux's.

Furthermore, Malkin and Crosby have carried more of a heavy load. For as much talent as has surrounded Malkin and Crosby over the years, Lemieux and Jagr played with seven other Hall of Famers.

Bob Errey played on the two Penguin championship teams with Lemieux and Jagr, and has been a longtime television color analyst for Penguin broadcasts during the Crosby-Malkin era.

"I'll give you the fact that they are the best duo," Errey said of Crosby and Malkin. "But when you look at the best individual, that's 66 (Lemieux). And when you look at the best grouping on a Stanley Cup winning team, that's the early-90s teams."

Mark Recchi coaches Malkin and Crosby now. He played with all four men. He says the more scoring-friendly style of game in the Lemieux-Jagr period has to be considered.

"They were in a different era when scoring was up more back then. It wasn't uncommon to get 100 points when you were elite like Mario," Recchi said Tuesday. "It's a much different game now."

So that's "why" Malkin and Crosby deserve top billing as a tandem in Pittsburgh sports history.

Now, what about the "how?" How in a hyperbolic, sensationalized, social media age and with a restrictive cap have Crosby and Malkin made this partnership work?

"You have to check your ego at the door," said Kris Letang, a 10-year teammate of Crosby and Malkin. "These guys cohabitate really well. Sid is the best captain for those reasons. He makes sure people are comfortable around him."

Others in the locker room expressed a similar sentiment when asked about how the two superstars have managed to thrive without attempting to outshine the other.

"They are confident in their own games," said Bryan Rust, a frequent linemate of both players over the last three years. "It doesn't matter if one of them is having a five-point night or the other one is having a better playoff. They are happy for each other. They play off of each other well, and they push each other."

In Pittsburgh, suggesting anything sports-related is better than the '90s Pens, or the Lumber Company, or the Super Steelers feels blasphemous.

The knee-jerk reaction is to call yourself out for being a prisoner of the moment if you somehow infer the present is better than the past.

But when discussing Crosby and Malkin as the best tandem we've ever seen in this city, you aren't doing that.

You're simply acknowledging reality.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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