PITTSBURGH -- In the past 14 months, Pittsburgh Penguins centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have gone head to head in Stanley Cup Playoff games against defensemen such as Ryan McDonagh, Seth Jones, Victor Hedman, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and, most recently, Erik Karlsson, arguably the best defenseman in the NHL right now.
Their biggest test awaits them in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators.
"I think it will be the hardest challenge in my life," Malkin said during 2017 Stanley Cup Final Media Day. "Usually it's one Karlsson. Here [it's] like four Karlssons."
He's talking about Predators defensemen Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm, the most fearsome top-four group on any team in the League.
That point is inarguable at the moment since the Predators got to the Stanley Cup Final against the Penguins largely on the backs of those four, who have combined for 11 goals and 39 points in 16 playoff games.
To win the Stanley Cup, which opens win Game 1 at PPG Paints Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports), the Penguins, particularly Malkin and Crosby, will have to figure out how to beat a team that has four defensemen that play like forwards and who create matchup nightmares for opposing coaches, even someone like Mike Sullivan, who has the luxury of playing Crosby and Malkin on separate lines.
"You have to be aware of where they are," Crosby said. "They're so good at joining the rush. They're so good at leading the rush. Sometimes it's a couple of those guys coming in late for a late chance and other times they're the first guy with the puck and taking it end to end. I think being aware of that right away is important, but I think we're a team that prides ourselves on being good with puck possession and holding onto the puck down low. That's something we're going to have to establish if we want to help out that way."
Video: Crosby and Malkin against Nashville's top four
Crosby's answer is well thought out and accurate in its description of Josi, Ellis, Subban and Ekholm. What is most interesting about it is he's talking from a defensive point of view about stopping defensemen.
This is a forward talking about stopping defensemen. It's supposed to be the other way around but isn't because Josi, Ellis, Subban and Ekholm have combined for 31.9 percent of the 122 points Nashville's players have accumulated this postseason.
For comparisons sake, Pittsburgh's eight defensemen have provided 22.8 percent of the 162 points the Penguins players have accumulated this postseason.
"It's a unique challenge," Crosby said. "When you think about playing teams you're talking about usually forwards and you look at [Filip] Forsberg and James Neal, guys like that who are snipers, they can finish, but you don't usually think of a group of defensemen as guys who can finish as well as they do. Usually there is one, maybe two guys that can do that in a 'D' corps. They have the luxury of having a number of them. That's just something everybody has to be aware of, but at the same time we believe in our game too so if we can hold onto the puck and force them to play defense hopefully that's something that gives us an advantage."
Malkin, though, astutely pointed out that it's more than just holding onto the puck against the Predators that will help at least limit what Nashville's defensemen can do against Pittsburgh.
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"We need to not just score goals," Malkin said. "We need to play good in the 'D' zone. We need the neutral zone to be good. My job is not just to score goals. I need to do small things too, like win faceoffs, block a shot if I can, win faceoffs in 'D' zone. It's all my job."
Do it all well and the Penguins should, in theory, be able to neutralize the one significant advantage the Predators have in this series.
But even then there are no guarantees because Josi, Ellis, Subban and Ekholm likely will combine to play around 50 minutes in a 60-minute game, more if it goes to overtime. They will have enough time to make their advantage matter.
"It's a good challenge for me, for Sid, for Phil [Kessel]," Malkin said. "We'll see who is better. I'm ready to play. I'm excited. I know it's not easy. I know it will be hard. Let's see what we can do."