PITTSBURGH—Above all else, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in the Stanley Cup final chasing history because of two long-time organizational pillars: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Crosby and Malkin helped the Penguins climb from the depths of the NHL to the pursuit of a third title in the last nine years and, potentially, the first repeat win in the salary cap era.
“They're both special," said Penguins' winger Phil Kessel. "If you watch them out there, they do some pretty special things.”
Good fortune largely is why both ended up in Steeltown.
The Penguins were the NHL's worst team in the 2003-04 season, but it was the Capitals who drew the first pick and opted for Alex Ovechkin.
That left Malkin there for the taking at No. 2.
More than a year later, every team in the league had a shot at the No. 1 pick following the 2004-05 lockout.
But the Pens, one of four teams with the maximum three lottery balls, emerged as the winner of the Crosby sweepstakes.
A franchise was changed—and perhaps saved—as a result.
Crosby and Malkin already have won two Cups for the Penguins and rank as two of the most prolific post-season performers in NHL history.
Crosby is tied for ninth all-time with 1.11 points per game, trailed closely by Malkin in 15th at 1.07.
“They just do whatever it takes to win,” said Justin Schultz, struck by the practice habits and competitiveness of the duo when he joined the Penguins last season.
Crosby said he was motivated more by the opportunity to win than any history at stake.
Getting back wasn't easy (the Penguins won two series in seven games) and he wanted to take advantage.
Pittsburgh also lost his and Malkin's first trip to the final in 2008. Then after winning in 2009, the club needed another seven years just to get back once more.
“We wanted to get back here, and we knew that it was going to be difficult and there'd be a lot of obstacles, and we found a way to get here now, so it's up to us to do something with the opportunity,” Crosby noted.
The Cole Harbour, N.S. native can join one-time mentor Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, and Wayne Gretzky as the only players to captain back-to-back Cup winners in the last 30 years.
He even could eclipse Mario with a third Cup (Lemieux has added two as an owner) and add to an already storied legacy, which includes a Conn Smythe Trophy.
Crosby and Malkin already have made an dent as the first team in the cap era to reach the final four times.
They managed to get back this spring despite losing their best defenceman, Kris Letang, for the season and top goalie Matt Murray for the better part of the first two rounds.
The two are described by teammates as understated leaders who drive the group mostly by example.
Malkin, though, has been chattering more and more lately in the dressing room, according to Chris Kunitz, one of only five players left from the Cup-winning team in 2009.
It was little bits of positivity such as, “We can do this!" or "We've got to get better here!”
Kunitz thought Malkin, much like Crosby, was pressing the issue because he knew how rare this opportunity was.
Both players have had shredded foes again in the post-season—ranked 1-2 in scoring (Malkin with 24 points, Crosby with 20).
Crosby set up Kunitz's series winner against the Senators and had six points over the final five games of the series.
Malkin had three assists in a 7-0 Game 5 win, then scored his seventh goal in a Game 6 taken by Ottawa.