Rattling Penguins' older, wiser dynamic duo won't be as easy this time

Capitals Penguins Hockey
Evgeni Malkin had his best season in years for the two-time defending champion Penguins.

It’s getting old, the Pittsburgh Penguins winning Stanley Cups.

One of these days, the two biggest reasons for that will be, too.

Unfortunately for Flyers fans, those days are not upon us yet. And they don’t seem to be close. Together since 2006, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still just 30 and 31, respectively, with no sign of erosion to their games.

Yes, Crosby scored 15 fewer goals than the 44 he had a season ago, but he covered that with an equal increase in assists, finishing with the same exact point total – 89 – that he did before last season’s run to the Stanley Cup.

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And Malkin? He was healthier and more productive this season than he has been since he was 25, playing in 78 of the Penguins’ 82 games and recording 42 goals and 56 assists.

“Those guys drive the ship, no question,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said back in January, when the duo triggered what has become a typical second-half surge. “We’re going to go as they go, and they’re so dynamic when they’re on the top of their game, and they’re so dangerous in every aspect of their game.”

Malkin was the second draft pick overall in 2004, Crosby the first overall in 2005. When the Penguins lured Malkin from the Russian pro league in the summer of 2006, the two stars met at the home of owner and Penguins great Mario Lemieux, who famously predicted: “It’s going to be exciting here for the next 10 to 15 years.”

Well, we’re on the 12th season. The Penguins have won the Stanley Cup three times on their watch, the two men taking turns winning the Conn Smythe Trophy after each. Malkin won it in 2009. Sid has been handed it after the last two.

There have been potholes, of course. Any good Flyers fan can tell you that. The Flyers famously upset the Penguins in six games in the first round in 2012, the last time these teams met in the playoffs, which Crosby referenced recently when he was asked about a possible three-peat.

“I don’t look that far ahead,’’ he said. “It doesn’t serve you well. You’re preparing for the first series – sometimes the first one is just as intense as the later ones, with everybody being so eager and teams being full of energy and healthy. You’ve got to find a way to get through that one first.’’

There’s a difference, of course, from that 2012 matchup, underlined by the Penguins’ status as repeat Cup champions. The Flyers were the veteran team then. Back then, Crosby could be unnerved and was starting fights, taking unneeded penalties.

Malkin could be shadowed, and was.

They are older now, and wiser, and more patient.

“The last two years have given us great confidence,’’ Malkin said recently. “We understand we’re a great team, and it’s our time to win, time to be part of history. … But we have to focus on just the next game in front of us.’’

 

Camera icon Gene J. Puskar / AP
Evgeni Malkin (71) and Sidney Crosby (87) are wiser since the last time they played the Flyers in the playoffs. They’ve also won two more Stanley Cups.

 

Crosby had nine points in the four games between the teams this season, all won by Pittsburgh. Malkin had five. Back in 2012, 19-year-old Sean Couturier drew praise for frustrating the Russian center known as “Geno,” and if the regular season is any indicator, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol will send out 19-year-old Nolan Patrick against Malkin as much as he can.

But as Hakstol noted before leaving for the Iron City, the Penguins will have the last change in the first two games, so that will be tricky. And the last thing the Flyers want to do is fuel Pittsburgh’s imposing power play — they set a franchise record this season, scoring 26.2 percent of the time with the man advantage —  with a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty.

“Paddy has taken every challenge that we’ve put in front of him,’’ Hakstol said. “He’s a consistent two-way player. He hasn’t played in an NHL playoff game, so that’s one thing that’s not on his resume. But the hockey sense, the competitiveness and the two-way thought process are there with him.’’

Said Patrick: “I’ve always wanted to be a two-way player who can play against the other team’s top guys. Nothing frustrates me more than when I make a defensive mistake.’’

Well, son, steel yourself. Because as good as Couturier was in that 2012 playoff, the 25-year-old Malkin still found the net three times and assisted on five other goals.

And amid losing his then-young mind, Crosby did the same.

“They’re obviously two of the best players in the world over the last 10 years,’’ Patrick said. “It’s going to be a fun series. I’m excited for it.’’

Said Crosby: “I don’t think we’re looking to fight. It will definitely be an intense series, we know that.”