Every decade or so a player comes along that defines his era of hockey. The names Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are in that class. On Tuesday night two generational talents will square off for the first time ever as Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins will host Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.
Crosby vs. McDavid. This is the matchup of legends. This is Howe vs. Orr. This is Gretzky vs. Lemieux. The next best vs. the current best.
"They're two great players and I know they're two of the elite players in the league right now," Pens head coach Mike Sullivan said. "That's always exciting when they're on the same ice surface."
"This will be cool for me," McDavid said. "I'm going to play against Crosby, someone I grew up idolizing. I followed his career. I'm excited about that."
Crosby is the "old" guard. The 29-year-old center's resume speaks for itself. He has led the Pens to two Stanley Cup championships while earning an NHL playoff MVP, two Olympic gold medals, two NHL MVPs, two NHL scoring titles, one NHL goal-scoring championship, three Ted Lindsay Awards as best player as voted by his peers, Mark Messier Leadership Award, World championship gold and WJC gold. Oh, and an Emmy.
The hype surrounding Crosby began well before he was ever even draft eligible. He did his first interview at 12 years old, and Sports Illustrated did an in-depth piece on him at the tender age of 16. Crosby was built to be the next best thing, a franchise savior and the new face of the NHL.
Amazingly, despite all of the apparently unrealistic and unattainable height of the hype, Crosby made it a reality and attained it all.
Ten years later the hysteria that besieged Crosby now encompasses McDavid. He was touted as the "next Crosby" during his junior college days with Erie. And there are many comparisons to both players' situations.
McDavid, who said his favorite player as a youth was Crosby, won the 2015 CHL Player of the Year and OHL Most Outstanding Player. McDavid, like Crosby, was drafted first overall in 2015. And like Crosby, the Edmonton Oilers hope McDavid will save their franchise from a decade of ineptitude.
So far, so good for 19-year-old McDavid. He posted 48 points (16G-32A) in 45 games during his rookie season, which was temporarily derailed by an upper-body injury. But comparatively, both he and Crosby have put up similar numbers through the first 58 career NHL games (Crosby, 28G-37A-65PTS; McDavid, 21G-41A-62PTS).
And that's not where the similarities end. Both Crosby and McDavid have superior vision and hands. And both are dedicated to their craft.
"(McDavid) is a generational player and a lot like 'Sid' personality-wise," said Pens goaltender Matt Murray, who was a teammate of McDavid with Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. "Pretty serious at the rink, all business. (McDavid) wants to be the best."
But there are, of course, also differences.
"They can do special things with the puck," said defenseman Justin Schultz, who has played with both players. "Connor has a little more speed in the open ice and Sid can grind it out a little bit more. They're both so dangerous when they're on the ice. They can make anything happen."
McDavid's speed is without a doubt his biggest asset.
"His speed stands out the most," Crosby said. "That allows him to do so many other things."
"He's a naturally gifted skater," Murray said. "He just looks like he's not even taking any strides but he's blowing past you. He beats guys wide or uses his speed and cuts to the middle. He's a dangerous player."
Tonight will not be McDavid's first visit to PPG Paints Arena. While still in juniors he attended a game and afterward had a chance to meet Crosby and Pens owner Mario Lemieux.
"That was really cool," McDavid said. "I was 15 at the time and coming from Erie. I had the opportunity to go into the (locker) room and keep Crosby and Mario and a few of the guys. That was definitely a special day."
While the hype will certainly center around Crosby and McDavid, there are two pretty good teams facing each other. The Pens are the reigning Stanley Cup champions, while the Oilers have finally turned a corner and lead the Pacific Division.
"With all due respect to (Crosby and McDavid), they're both terrific players, there are two pretty good teams, too," Sullivan said. "We have a big test against a really good team tonight."
"At the end of the day you're going out there, trying to get two points," Crosby said. "They all mean the same, but you definitely understand the situation."