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Pens superstars share special bond

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

When Evgeni Malkin was a teenager, he had a conversation with his agent, who was telling him all about another one of his young clients. The agent told Malkin this other kid was incredibly special, a generational talent.

"I said what's his name? He said Sidney Crosby," Malkin recalled. "I said how old? He said 14 years old. I said wow. He said he's beaten all the records already, he's like unbelievable."

So Malkin started to follow Crosby's career, watching highlights when he got the chance. And to his delight, after the Pens drafted Malkin second overall in 2004, they took Crosby with the first-overall selection the following year.

"I saw he was already an amazing fast guy, very smart," Malkin said. "I'm glad to have played on the same team with him like three years after we talked to my agent."

Crosby joined the Penguins first, scoring 102 points in his rookie season (2005-06) to surpass Mario Lemieux's rookie record of 100 points (1984-85). Malkin arrived the next year, and Crosby admitted he didn't know too much about him before that.

"He's someone I saw play," Crosby said. "Played against him in the World Juniors and things like that. Hadn't really met him and didn't know a lot about him, and didn't have any friends who had played with him or anything like that. Just kind of an unknown, you know?"

Well, Crosby and the rest of Pittsburgh quickly got to know Malkin, and their shared domination began.

Crosby recorded a career-high 120 points to win a trio of awards - the scoring title (Art Ross); NHL MVP (Hart); and NHL outstanding player as voted by his peers (Ted Lindsay). Meanwhile, Malkin finished with 85 points to capture the Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie.

When talking about that first year together, Malkin used just one superlative to describe the experience.

"It was like, wow," Malkin said with a laugh. "Because my first year, everyone was new for me. But Sid was already a legend here. His second year, he scored 120 points. I think he played the best year of his life. He was like dominating every shift and just a joy to watch."

Everyone and everything was new to the Russian-born Malkin, including the English language, which initially made it difficult for the two to bond. But with the help of teammate Sergei Gonchar, they began to get to know each other.

"It was tough. There was a pretty big language barrier there," Crosby said. "He tried his best to learn English and I think having Gonch around helped as far as guys understanding him because he was there to translate. It was just that he couldn't kind of share his thoughts, so we were able to get his thoughts through Gonch for a little bit. It helps that way and it was a big help to him. Gonch is a great guy and a great role model. Definitely helped."

It also helped that Crosby was willing to handle a lot of the off-ice obligations that come with being players of their stature, particularly media interviews. Ever since he entered the league, Crosby has been a terrific spokesperson for both the Pens and the NHL.

He's incredibly accessible for a superstar, talking to reporters after virtually every practice, morning skate and game, which is something that took a lot of pressure off Malkin - especially in the early years.

But in recent years, Malkin has tried to return the favor by doing more interviews. Malkin is usually willing to speak with whoever comes up to him and asks questions, particularly when he has a big game or after a tough loss.

"He takes all the pressure," Malkin said. "He talks every day. But he's the best player. I think he's enjoyed that. He was like 10 years old when he started talking to the media. He helps me a lot with the media. I'm trying to do my best. Now I do a little bit better. I talk a little bit more. I hope to be a help to him too."

It's not just with media that Crosby has helped Malkin. The pair have built a strong relationship - every now and then they'll go to dinner together, just the two of them, on the road and during last summer's Stanley Cup celebrations, Malkin posted a photo of the pair on Instagram captioned "Best friends" - and one that revolves around an understanding of each other's situations.

"We're pretty tight," Malkin said. "He's a nice guy. Sometimes guys with talent like Sid are a little bit different, but he's friendly, his family is real friendly too. I'm glad to have met Sid and we talk a little bit more about his life, my life. He's really open to talk every day."

Particularly when things aren't going well on the ice.

"I remember I had a couple tough situations, like I wasn't scoring, I was a little bit frustrated," Malkin said. "He comes to me and said don't worry, play your game, we'll help you and I started to play better because he supported me. He understands my situation when guys aren't scoring in like 10 games. It's tough, you lose confidence. He came to me and we've talked a little bit and he's nice."

Off the ice, Crosby said that Malkin does a good job of helping keep things light around the locker room.

"He's a pretty laid-back guy," said Crosby, who started cracking up when thinking of some of his best Malkin stories. "He likes to have fun, he likes to joke around. I think that's the biggest thing, can't take him too serious."

Now in their 11th season, the two of them have grown up together, going from those young teenagers who didn't know all that much about each other to adults who are both great people. 

And they've built an incredible legacy in Pittsburgh along the way as the team's franchise centers. Crosby and Malkin, Sid and Geno, 87 and 71, the two-headed monster - the nicknames go on.

And right now, even with the Pens a battered and bruised group missing a number of key players during an arduous stretch of the schedule, those two are playing at such a high level and helping carry the team through their injury troubles.

Despite the 29-year-old Crosby missing six games this season and the 30-year-old Malkin missing seven, they're fourth and fifth in league scoring, respectively. Crosby has played 63 games while Malkin has played 62, and the other three players in the top five have all played at least 69.

Crosby is second in the NHL with 36 goals while Malkin is tied for third with 33, which is just the third time in their careers they have each scored 30 goals in the same season, and the first time they've done so since 2008-09.

And while Pens fans certainly feel lucky to have the two best players in the world on their team, they feel lucky to have been teammates for such a long time.

"I think I feel fortunate to play with him," Crosby said. "He's a guy who can change a game. It's one of those things where you play against a team, it's a tight game, you know you can lean on him to make a play and he can come up big. I think playing together for such a long time, there's an appreciation for sure."

And while the two have accomplished a lot of incredible achievements individually - they've combined for three league MVPs, four MVPs as voted by their peers, two playoff MVPs, four scoring titles, one rookie of the year and one goal-scoring title - their legacies will always be linked here in Pittsburgh. Especially having just won their second Stanley Cup together.

And Malkin, who is signed with the team through the 2021-22 season, wants to capture more championships with Crosby, whose contract goes through the 2024-25 season.

"I hope we play our whole lives here," Malkin said. "I don't want to move to a different city. I'd like to play here. I like to play with Sid. With this team, this young group, I just do my best and I know Sid works hard too. We're just trying to win again and get as many Cups as we can.

"It's not easy because sometimes there's injury, sometimes there's just not luck. But we will try to of course win more. It's not easy, but we've played 10 years together already. We won two Cups, but maybe we'll play 10 more years together and we'll win a couple more. Why not?"

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