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Maple Leafs centers could unseat Penguins as best in NHL, Malkin says

Three-time Stanley Cup champ thinks Tavares, Matthews will replace him and Crosby

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Evgeni Malkin doesn't think it will be very long before centers John Tavares and Auston Matthews have the type of impact on the Toronto Maple Leafs that he and Sidney Crosby have made with the Pittsburgh Penguins for more than a decade.

 

[RELATED: Crosby says McDavid is best player in NHL]

 

"Toronto did a great job when they signed Tavares," Malkin told NHL.com. "It shows they are doing it the right way. And now we're seeing that they are dominant in every game."

Malkin mentioned the Maple Leafs' fifth straight win Monday as proof. Matthews became the fifth player in NHL history to have multiple points in each of the first seven games of a season, and Tavares had an assist in a 4-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings.

Matthews, who leads the NHL with 16 points (10 goals, six assists), joined Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens of the Penguins (1992-93), Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders (1984-85), and Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers (1983-84) as those to start a season with seven consecutive multipoint games.

"I watched the last game against L.A.," Malkin said. "They played unbelievable."

Video: Seven consecutive multi-point games for Matthews

Malkin and Crosby will get a firsthand look when the Penguins (2-1-2) play the Maple Leafs (6-1-0) at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; TVAS, TSN4, ATTSN-PT, NHL.TV).

Crosby and Malkin have long been considered the NHL's top duo at center. Each has won the Hart Trophy voted as the NHL's most valuable player (Crosby in 2007 and 2014, and Malkin in 2012), and they've helped Pittsburgh win the Stanley Cup three times (2009, 2016, 2017). Crosby and Malkin have combined for an average of 162 points per season since they became teammates in 2006-07.

"They've been dominant for years now," Matthews said. "That's a big reason they've been successful and being able to win Cups with their depth down the middle throughout the whole team. Two guys, three guys, four guys don't win Cups, but it helps when you have that depth."

When the Maple Leafs signed Tavares to a seven year, $77 million contract July 1, they hoped his addition to a group of centers that already included Matthews, 21, and Nazem Kadri, 28, would lead to similar success. Tavares, who turned 28 on Sept. 20, said there is a long way to go before that happens.

"I think to sum it up, you can talk about those guys and what they've done for a while, but it's just being at the level they've been at consistently," he said.

"I've said it before; I don't think it's always smart to compare yourself to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They're two special players and very well accomplished, they feed off one another, they have success with one another, they push one another. I think those things you can strive for and look to implement with ourselves.

"Hopefully we can push each other to help this team get to the top."

Matthews had 63 points (34 goals, 29 assists) in 62 games last season for the Maple Leafs; Tavares had 84 points (37 goals, 47 assists) in 82 games with the Islanders for a combined 147 points. As teammates, they've combined for 27 points in seven games (Tavares has six goals and five assists).

Malkin (one goal, eight assists) and Crosby (four assists) have combined for 13 points in five games for the Penguins. Crosby's lack of goals is not uncommon; he had one in their first five games last season, with an 11-game drought from Oct. 21-Nov. 11, 2017. He finished with 29 goals and 89 points.

Crosby said Tavares is already helping Matthews in several ways.

"Being the player he is and taking some of the pressure off Matthews, without J.T. saying a word, that helps," Crosby said. "But just the experience. He's played in big games in his career. He's also a pretty level-headed guy. There are highs and lows in playing in a big market like Toronto, and J.T. is pretty even-keeled. I just think it's naturally a contagious thing to be around."

Video: LAK@TOR: Marner taps in Tavares' great pass

Crosby said he has seen a definitive improvement in Matthews' game early this season. As for how to defend Matthews, the Penguins captain said they must be aware of his release.

"I think he's always had a great shot, but I think he's carrying the puck more," Crosby said. "I think it's a confidence thing. He's a big guy like [Malkin], so sometimes I think you don't realize how strong you are. Maybe you could hold it for that extra second or hold that guy off or you could beat that guy wide.

"I just think he's taken the onus upon himself more to hold onto the puck and take his shot, and his shot's on a different level."

Time will tell if Matthews and Tavares evolve into the best 1-2 punch at center in the NHL, but Malkin, 32, said he already sees the signs. Not that he and Crosby, 31, are preparing to fade off into the sunset. Far from it.

"It's a nice compliment, sure," Malkin said of Tavares' comments. "But I think it's time. Maybe five, 10 years ago we were the top two players, but now there are so many good players. I'd say we're in the top 10, maybe the top five. When you look at guys like (Edmonton Oilers center Connor) McDavid, Matthews, Tavares, they dominate. They're unbelievable.

"At the same time, we're still trying to be the best every game. We're both over 30 years old, but the last three years we've still been playing unbelievable. Maybe we're not dominating every shift, but now we have more experience. Now we understand what it takes in the playoffs."

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