Obviously I come into every game and I want to be better than the guy next to me. Tonight will be a challenge and I think that’s something I’m looking forward to. It’s going to be a battle all night. - Sean Monahan
PITTSBURGH, PA -- Don’t watch. Play.
It’s the message delivered from Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley to the likes of Sean Monahan, Josh Jooris and Markus Granlund, who are set to face off opposite Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.
Don’t learn from the pair at the other end. Play against them.
“I don’t think that you can really learn while you play,” Hartley said. “You have to watch and obviously we don’t want to watch them because if you watch them, it might get ugly. We have to play. You want to watch them? You get a DVD of the game on your computer and you watch them after the game or you watch them this afternoon.”
It’s a hands-on education, though.
Monahan and the pair of rookie centres will undoubtedly get a dose of two of the game’s premier pivots.
Monahan, who has already seen a steady diet of the Western Conference’s elite this season, is excited to take the challenge to another level against the Pittsburgh pair.
“I think it’s exciting,” he said. “Obviously I come into every game and I want to be better than the guy next to me. Tonight will be a challenge and I think that’s something I’m looking forward to. It’s going to be a battle all night.”
The resume for Crosby is impeccable.
He recorded career point No. 800 two weeks ago against the Toronto Maple Leafs, making him the sixth-fastest player to in NHL history to reach the plateau. It came just a month after recording his 500th career assist, also the sixth-fastest player to reach that mark.
At just 27, Crosby already ranks among the league’s top-150 scorers of all time while averaging 1.39 points-per-game.
Through his first six NHL seasons, Crosby had already won the Stanley Cup (2009), Hart Trophy (2007), Art Ross (2007), Rocket Richard (2010), Ted Lindsay (2007) and Mark Messier Leadership Award (2010). He served as alternate captain in Canada’s gold medal win at the 2010 Olympics and repeated the effort in 2014 as captain.
“He’s someone that I watched when I was a little bit younger,” Monahan said. “But at end of the day, I’m past that stage and I’m just going into the game trying to be better than him, come out with the win.”
Malkin is no slouch either.
The 28-year-old has a Conne Smythe (2009), Art Ross (2009), Calder Trophy (2007) and was a back-to-back finalist for both the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award in 2008 and 2009. He’s represented Russia on the Olympic stage three times, too (2006, 2010, 2014).
“[Malkin] wants the puck and he wants to hang on to it,” Monahan identified. “He can obviously make plays and he’s a smart player. I think you’ve got to limit his time and space and I think that’s what we’re going to try to do tonight.”
The awareness is a two-way street, though.
Crosby knows what Calgary’s young trio offers down the middle.
“He's proven that he's pretty responsible at both ends of the ice and everybody is going to make mistakes, whether you're in your 15th year or second year,” said Crosby, who ranks first on the Penguins this season in assists (26), points (35) and sits third with nine goals. “There's nothing specific. If I look back to my first couple of years, maybe faceoffs, stuff like that, maybe you're not quite at where you're going to be at one point.
“But it doesn't mean your bad at it at a young age, either. Things are definitely going to improve, but I don't see any weaknesses that I can necessarily use against him.”
The only one, Hartley cautioned, was guarding against awe.
“That’s part of the challenge,” Hartley said. “Because obviously all of our young players, they watched Crosby and Malkin play many games, I’m sure. They were probably one of their idols at that one point but at the same time, it’s great. You have a chance to be on the same sheet of ice as two of the best hockey players in the world.
“Don’t watch them. Play with them. Play with them and make sure that you have fun and you enjoy it.”