PITTSBURGH -- A year ago, Mario Lemieux stood alone on the ice and watched quietly as his Pittsburgh Penguins took one last lap with the Stanley Cup.
He had won the Cup twice as a player with the Penguins, in 1991 and '92. It had helped set him apart as one of the greatest players in NHL history. Now he had won the Cup twice as an owner, in 2009 and '16, and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had won it twice as players too.
"I think it's important for great players like Sid and Malkin to have two Cups," Lemieux said amid the celebration. "It's so hard to win it year after year, and for them to be able to come through this year and win their second Cup …"
He didn't finish his sentence, maybe because he felt they weren't finished yet.
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"Hopefully there's a few more for them," he said. "They're amazing players."
For the Penguins, particularly Crosby and Malkin, the 2017 Stanley Cup Final is about more than a championship. It is about degrees of greatness.
When they play the Nashville Predators starting with Game 1 at PPG Paints Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports), they have a chance to move higher in the hierarchy of hockey history.
Video: Crosby and Malkin against Nashville's top four
The Penguins can become the seventh team to win the Cup five times, following the Montreal Canadiens (24), Toronto Maple Leafs (13), Detroit Red Wings (11), Boston Bruins (six), Edmonton Oilers (five) and Chicago Blackhawks (five). They can become the first to win it back to back since the Red Wings in 1997 and '98.
They can become the first to win it in consecutive seasons since the NHL introduced the salary cap in 2005 and match the Blackhawks for the most championships in the salary-cap era with three, staking a claim as the team of the era. They can give Lemieux his third championship as an owner and win one more than he did as a player.
Malkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2009. Crosby won it last season. Each is a candidate again, with Malkin leading the League in scoring with 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists) in 19 games and Crosby second with 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 18 games.
"I know just being around Sid and talking with Sid how much this means to him," forward Matt Cullen said. "I don't think I've ever seen him more determined and more committed than I have seen him this last playoff run and even more so the last few days. He's just a unique competitor. They don't come along very often."
Asked if Crosby could sniff the history, Cullen said: "I don't think there's any question that he can sense where we're at and has a real strong grasp on the history of the game. I mean, Sid's a guy that loves the game more than anybody and follows it probably more closely than anybody. I think that he more than anyone understands the position that we're in and what an opportunity we have."
Crosby played that down. He has been around long enough and been through so much, from injuries to disappointments, he knows that the Cup is motivation enough. It's so hard to get to the Final, let alone win it, that if and when you do get here, you want to take advantage of it. Won't the Predators be just as motivated? They've never made the Final before and none of their players has ever won the Cup.
"There's a lot of motivating factors," Crosby said. "Maybe [history is] one of them, but that's not something you constantly think about. I think you're fortunate to be back here, and it's a great opportunity."
Video: Crosby on team's drive, facing off against the Preds
But asked to name the great team he watched growing up, Crosby's face lit up. Born in 1987, he was too young to watch the Oilers of the 1980s or even fully absorb the Penguins of the early 1990s. The team he named?
It just so happened to be the last team to go back to back: the Red Wings of 1997 and '98. He said it was cool how Detroit kept the same core together, brought in new players like Dominik Hasek, Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, and won again in 2002.
"Just seeing them find a way to win, it was kind of special," Crosby said.
There are championship teams and then there are special teams. The Penguins have a chance to be a special team. Crosby and Malkin are already special players for so many reasons but have a chance to be in an even more elite class.
"My record is Cups," Malkin said. "If I win one more Cup, it's my record. I don't think about points. It's only team. It's only win back to back."
It's only four wins away.