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Pittsburgh's 'Big Three' the ultimate hat trick

by Larry Wigge
DETROIT -- Malkin. Crosby and Staal.

The reward of struggling mightily for a few years was the right to pick Evgeni Malkin with the second pick in the 2004 Entry Draft, Sidney Crosby with the first pick one year later, followed by Jordan Staal with the No. 2 pick in the 2006 draft.

That's like the ultimate hat trick for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And on Thursday night in Game 4 at Pittsburgh, the goals came fast and furious from Malkin, Staal and Crosby to help the Penguins power past the Detroit Red Wings, 4-2, to even the Stanley Cup Final at two games apiece.

"I wouldn't want to be on the other side, that's for sure," Pittsburgh forward Max Talbot said when asked what it was like to see the big three going all at once. "They're three really powerful and strong centermen. They're big. They win battles, and they're three leaders out there. You look at them on the bench, it's line after line after line."

"When you have three centers like they have and they are contributing like they did tonight, that's a dimension that is difficult to beat," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said of Crosby, Malkin and Staal's production in Game 4.

Ironically, it was that 1983 matchup with the Islanders that convinced Glen Sather to switch Mark Messier from left wing to center to try to neutralize the strength that Bryan Trottier used to overpower the Oilers.

"It was a learning experience for us," Messier recalled. "You could say, we had to lose before we could win."

Just like the Penguins this year.

This time around, thanks to the change from the defensive-minded Michel Therrien to Dan Bylsma and his puck-possession, force-the-opposition-to-play-our-game style of play, which was on
display at its finest against Detroit in Game 4.

"Finding strength down the middle is one of the things we all struggle to get," said St. Louis Blues President John Davidson. "Some teams struggle to find two centers much less three quality centers like the Penguins have."

"The Penguins can be envied for the centers they have," said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson, whose team, led by a threesome at center that included Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, posted the best record in the NHL this season.

Said Red Wings assistant coach Brad McCrimmon, who played against the Oilers, sees the Wings on a regular basis and is getting a real glimpse of the Penguins these days, "We've proven that depth wins games and their depth has put them in a position to do some great things.

"I was in some great battles with the Oilers when I played in Calgary," McCrimmon continued. "The Battle of Alberta was a name those games earned. I remember when the Oilers moved Mess to center. After that, it seemed like they came at you in waves on most nights. No one could stop them."

That 1-2-3 strength down the middle is what makes some believe the Penguins we are looking at today could become the Oilers of the 1980s, if they have learned their lessons well enough to overcome the defending champion Red Wings.

And that strength down the middle in Pittsburgh starts and changes on the fly with Crosby, Malkin and Staal -- centers, like all the greats, who want the puck in their hands to control the game, control the pace, move players around like chess pieces in their favor.

That strength down the middle sometimes becomes a Crosby-Malkin combination.

"It is fun playing with Geno, but I think it makes sense to split us up," Crosby said. "If we're separated, we're naturally going to be harder to defend."

And, throw in Staal, and that's a triple whammy on some nights. Staal's shorthanded goal in Game 4, for instance, could prove to be the defining moment in this series.

Penguins GM Ray Shero recalls the 2006 draft and the options he had to choose Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom or Phil Kessel. All centers. All great players.

"I wanted Jordan Staal," Shero said. "Our staff wanted Jordan. It was basically a consensus. I wasn't picking him to trade him because we already had Sid and Geno. They say you build from a position of strength. That was the process there, still is."

While it's true you can't compare teams on star centers alone, not when the Oilers also had Hall of Famers Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe and Grant Fuhr, there's one thing we can all agree on: Crosby, Malkin and Staal are truly the ultimate hat trick for the Penguins.
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