It was almost 11 years ago, in August 2006, that Evgeni Malkin vanished. He had just signed a contract extension with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, the Russian professional team in the steel mining town where he was raised. He had recently gotten a puppy. And he had, for the first time in awhile, been given access to his passport by the overlords who ran his team, thanks to a preseason team training trip to Finland that required the documentation. The Metallurg players and coaches flew to the Helsinki airport, made their way through customs, and soon realized that the star player described by a team official as “that diamond that we have created” was gone.
It was quite the international jewel heist: eventually, the 20-year-old Malkin turned up in Los Angeles. He had been greeted in Helsinki by a crafty agent, J.P. Barry, squirreled away for five days in a secret Finnish apartment while visa issues were ironed out, and finally flown to the United States in order to live his dream of playing in the NHL. Two years earlier, in 2004, the Pittsburgh Penguins had drafted Malkin second overall, but an NHL lockout and overwhelming pressure from the hometown Russian team that had been grooming Malkin since he was a boy had kept him in Magnitogorsk. But no longer; after making his great escape from Finland to Los Angeles, Malkin’s next destination was Pittsburgh, and his first stop in his new Steel City was the house of Penguins owner and NHL legend Mario Lemieux.
Sergei Gonchar, a Russian player on the Penguins who had played on national teams with Malkin, was there to translate. Lemieux welcomed Malkin and, according to Pittsburgh Magazine, opened some fancy bottles of wine. And 19-year-old Sidney Crosby, the young next-Gretzky hotshot whom the Penguins drafted first overall a year after selecting Malkin, was present to meet the guy who would help elevate him to glory.
“We have two great ones with Sid and Evgeni,” Lemieux told reporters a few days later when he announced that Pittsburgh had agreed to terms on a three-year deal with Malkin. “It’s going to be exciting here for the next 10 to 15 years.” Eleven years, three Stanley Cups, and three Conn Smythes later, it turns out Super Mario was right.
On Sunday night on the road in Nashville, the friendliest unfriendly confines in the NHL, the Penguins defeated the Nashville Predators 2–0 in Game 6 and became the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Detroit Red Wings juggernaut did so in 1996–97 and 1997–98. It was the franchise’s fifth championship, its fifth time winning the Cup on someone else’s rink, and its fifth title team featuring at least two surefire Hall of Famers. In the early ’90s, it was Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. These days, it’s Geno and Sid. In 25 playoff games this championship season, Malkin and Crosby combined for 18 goals and 37 assists. They anchored two separately fearsome lines that kept opposing defenses scrambling and made up for the lack of the Penguins’ own top defenseman, the injured Kris Letang. And they further established the supremacy of their forever intertwined careers.
“I think I termed then a one-two punch maybe yesterday,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan about Crosby and Malkin during his postgame press conference. “But it’s really a 1 and 1A. These guys, they’re elite players. They’re great people, and they’re — I don’t know that you could find two better people to build a team around than these two guys.”
You probably also couldn’t find two guys whose auras are more different, even as their importance to the team is quite alike. Crosby is a hockey savant, a nerdy genius in a big-assed body who can outthink and outmaneuver just about anyone on the ice and yet still inspires opposing players and fans to want to steal his lunch money and mock him as a baby when he protests. Colby Armstrong, a former teammate, told ESPN that when Crosby first joined the team as a teenager, he lived up to some impossible hype. “We had heard a lot about him,” Armstrong said, “but YouTube was just kicking off, so there wasn’t much video any of us had on him. I was like, ‘Holy smokes, look at this guy.’”
Sid is the team’s undisputed leader, an inclusive locker room presence who goes out of his way to make the younger players feel welcome and who never doesn’t want to talk hockey. But Crosby also used to be easily rattled — in the 2012 playoffs, Claude Giroux appeared to write the playbook on how to knock him off his game — though in recent years, those tendencies have diminished. In Game 5 of this year’s Cup final, Crosby was the one smashing heads instead of the other way around.
Malkin, meanwhile, is the team’s Hodor, a thick slab of a man who doesn’t say much but who carries all sorts of weight without complaining. He is a surprisingly nimble skater for his size, dancing around the ice like an elephant in a tutu. He just feels dangerous: While much of Crosby’s talent lies in his ability to do unsung things like protect the puck along the boards, Malkin is a physical, imposing presence who forces you to look upon him and despair.
Crosby is a Good Canadian Boy who has been giving interviews since he was a child; Malkin spoke no English upon arriving in the States and used to hang out with Gonchar’s 2-year-old daughter, watching cartoons and picking up the language. “She learned a little bit quicker than me,” he told Pittsburgh Magazine in 2011. Crosby is not on Twitter; Malkin once tweeted his surprise when he found out that a tomato is not a vegetable.
And while Crosby and his future legacy are pretty properly rated in the grand scheme of things, Malkin has always been a tougher and more overlooked read. When the NHL, as part of its centennial celebration, released a list of the league’s 100 best players in January, Malkin was not on it. “What are they smoking?” ranted Don Cherry, of all people, back then, and during intermission of Game 6 on Sunday he was moved to rehash the tirade. “I have to get this off my chest,” he said, before delving into Malkin’s impressive résumé, which includes a 2007 Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie and the 2009 Conn Smythe for playoff MVP. “I don’t know what they are doing.” It’s rare for the rah-rah-Canada Cherry to feel so strongly about a foreign player, much less a Russian — in 2013, Cherry complained more characteristically that Malkin was “lazy” — but Malkin tends to have that effect on people. “Maybe we can re-vote and see if Malkin is in the Top 100 now,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said after Pittsburgh won another Cup.
At the conclusion of Game 6, as Gary Bettman smiled through the customary ceremonial booing of the commissioner and stood on the ice with the shiny, maple leaf–shaped Conn Smythe Trophy, it seemed certain that whoever won it would be doing so for the second time. In 2009, when the Penguins defeated the Red Wings in seven games (a year after losing to Detroit in six), it was Malkin who earned the honors, following a season in which he led the league in scoring with a playoff performance in which he did as well. Malkin scored 14 goals and added 22 assists that postseason; this year, he led all playoff scorers with 10 goals and 18 assists.
And last season, when Crosby was named playoff MVP, it felt like a bit of a lifetime achievement award, a “what do you get for the man who has everything?” accolade. That’s not to say he didn’t deserve it — although the sharpshooting Phil Kessel definitely had a case — but it seemed like a way to highlight the extraordinary career Crosby has had, one that qualifies him for consideration as the best player of all time. Crosby doesn’t turn 30 until later this summer, but his résumé reads like the Very Hungry Caterpillar’s menu, or the Twelve Days of Sidsmas: Over a thousand regular-season points. Fifty-seven playoff goals and 107 assists. Three Ted Lindsay awards for league MVP as voted by the players. Two Hart trophies for league MVP as voted by the media. Two Olympic golds. World Cup of Hockey championship. Two scoring titles. Two goal scoring titles. Threeeeeee golden riiiiings … And now, two Conn Smythe awards, back-to-back, the first time that’s happened since Lemieux’s wins in 1991 and 1992.
For the Penguins, having two players of Crosby and Malkin’s caliber has enabled each of them to better tolerate the ebbs and flows of a season, each stepping up if the other is being held back, like a big ol’ game of hockey Whack-a-Mole. During the 2011–12 season, when Crosby played only 22 games and was sidelined — permanently, some feared — with complications from concussions, Malkin scored 50 goals and 109 points and earned the Hart Trophy as league MVP. In 2013–14, when Malkin missed 22 games with an assortment of various lower-body injuries, it was Crosby who led the league in scoring with 104 points. (Their ability to do this might have rubbed off on their teammates: When goalie Matt Murray suffered an injury at the start of the playoffs, Marc-Andre Fleury filled in wonderfully until Murray returned.) Sid and Geno have developed a remarkable resilience: It was only a few years ago that the Penguins were losing big Game 7s; it was only 18 months ago that they were firing head coach Mike Johnston and no longer considered a major threat in the league. This year, they won two Game 7s — one in double overtime, off a Crosby assist — en route to a second straight Cup.
Back in 2008, when Malkin recorded his 200th career point with an assist on Crosby’s 100th career goal, Crosby had an equipment manager saw the puck in half so that each player could go home with a keepsake, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune. These days, there’s no need to split the kitty. The Penguins now have more than enough success to go around, and the team has benefited most when its two best players are each given the space and time, as the hockey parlance goes, to do their own thing.
On this year’s championship team, Crosby was surrounded by young talent that he could mold to his image. Linemate Conor Sheary, 5-foot-8 and undrafted, now has two Stanley Cups to his name. Rookie Jake Guentzel led all playoff goal scorers this season. Malkin, meanwhile, found charming, hilarious chemistry with his linemate Kessel. On Sunday night, as Carl Hagelin skated in alone toward an empty Nashville net and prepared to bury the 2–0 insurance goal, an ecstatic Malkin celebrated this friendship and the Stanley Cup win by repeatedly punching Kessel in the face. (Later, they had a champagne sword fight in the locker room.)
Crosby seemed almost embarrassed to be photographed with the Conn Smythe Trophy, posing briefly and then handing it off immediately to an NHL official so he could get back to celebrating more generally with the boys. As the Penguins stood on the Bridgestone Arena ice and passed the Cup around and around, Crosby and Malkin posed with the giant chalice, kissing it on either side like a pair of happy parents posing with a new baby — which, basically, they are. “Geno comes to mind right away,” Crosby later said when asked whom he would vote for if he had a Conn Smythe pick. And Malkin, almost 11 years since he drank wine at Lemieux’s house with his new teammate after a harrowing cross-Atlantic caper, was asked what he thought about himself and Crosby. Where would he rank them in the pantheon of great one-two punches, or of great combinations of 1 and 1A?
“It’s a hard question,” Malkin said. “Great organization, great club, great players here. I’m not thinking about this … because I think we’ll still play together a long time and maybe win. Maybe when we’re retired, we’ll think about it. But now, we’re still young and we’re still hungry and of course we want more.”