By Jason Mackey
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin might be absent, but they're not forgotten. Not even close, those gathered at Nationwide Arena for the NHL All-Star Game insisted.
Other elite scoring duos have emerged across the league. Few, however, possess the same pedigree and success as the Penguins' franchise centers.
With 51 points apiece at the All-Star break — tied with Chicago's Patrick Kane for third overall — Crosby and Malkin remain as relevant as ever to their peers.
Even if they're currently not healthy enough to compete against them.
“It would be hard to say they're not at the top,” Kane said. “That's a pretty special duo right there.”
Despite playing on a team with Jonathan Toews — among a league-high five Blackhawks who were selected for the All-Star Game — Kane said Malkin is his favorite player in the league to watch.
“I love watching Pittsburgh play because I know that, throughout the whole game, I'm going to have a chance to watch one of them,” Kane said. “They play a lot of minutes. They play on different lines, and they're both very fun to watch. You can learn a lot from both of those guys.”
Calgary rookie Johnny Gaudreau, however, prefers Crosby to Malkin. It's the passing ability that does it for him.
And in a sign of how far Crosby and Malkin have come, the baby-faced Gaudreau, only 21 years old, grew up watching Crosby and Malkin rise to prominence as an elite duo.
“Crosby is so fun to watch, so skilled with the puck,” Gaudreau said. “He's definitely a big part of the Penguins. I think he's one of the best players in the world.”
Crosby and Malkin, who missed the All-Star Game with lower-body injuries, have combined for 102 of the Penguins' 378 points through 46 games this season (27 percent).
That's more points than any duo except for Philadelphia's Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek (107). Their percentage of team points ranks third behind Giroux and Voracek (29.4) and Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno (27.9) of Columbus.
None of those four players, of course, have the reputations of Crosby and Malkin.
Or have hoisted the Stanley Cup.
“They're two of the best players in the league,” Voracek said. “It's too bad they're not here.”
Voracek refused to rank the league's elite scoring duos, perhaps smartly realizing his previous high-water mark for points in a season is 62.
Crosby and Malkin together have eight 100-plus-point seasons.
“It's hard for me to answer that question,” Voracek said. “I've been (among the league's leading scorers) for 45 games. They've been there for years. If (Giroux and I) are going to play like that for the next three or four years, then we can start talking about it.”
Ryan Getzlaf, whose partnership with Corey Perry has produced 80 points — 22.2 percent of Anaheim's total — also ducked the question about where Crosby and Malkin rank.
But at least his was done in a humorous way.
“That's your job, not mine,” Getzlaf said. “I don't fit those guys in. Those guys are great players. They've been great players for a long time and have done some great things. We have a lot of respect for those guys around the league.”
A healthy respect for Crosby and Malkin, sure. That's not saying much.
But it's doubtful Getzlaf and the rest of the NHL's top players are all that intimidated by some of Crosby and Malkin's linemates this season.
Or know them at all.
Crosby and Malkin have played with a combined 24 different sets of linemates, a group that includes three players — Jayson Megna, Bryan Rust and Andrew Ebbett — who started the season in the American Hockey League. Two more, Mark Arcobello and Rob Klinkhammer, were/are fourth-liners in Edmonton.
Help, suffice it to say, has not always been on the way.
“It makes it that much more impressive, but I'm not surprised because guys like Crosby and Malkin can elevate other people around them, help them improve and help them become better players,” NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes said. “Look at (Pascal Dupuis) or Chris Kunitz. Those guys are good players in their own right. Chris Kunitz had won a Cup in Anaheim. But I really think that those guys elevated their games after playing with (Crosby and Malkin).”
Weekes then thought back to his playing career, how he played with Rod Brind'Amour, Ron Francis, Kirk Muller, Mark Messier, Jaromir Jagr and Patrick Elias.
And how they didn't always have elite wingers to pass to yet still scored. A lot.
“One of the things about a lot of those guys is they make people better,” Weekes said. “With Geno, he's so good, so big, fast, strong, explosive and skilled that you don't really recognize it until you play against him or you get to see him play in person so you can really appreciate his greatness.
“Guys get better just by practicing with (Crosby and Malkin). How can you not? It's like playing street hockey against your older brother. You're going to get better.”
Which the Penguins can only hope their franchise centers do: Get better, so they can help with a playoff push over the final 36 games of the season.
“When they're on the ice together, even if it's only a couple times a game, the sparks fly pretty quickly,” Tampa Bay's Jonathan Drouin said. “They're great players on the power play, executing those cross-ice passes, back and forth. They're obviously one of the top duos in the league.”
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