Above all else, the Pittsburgh Penguins are here in the Stanley Cup final chasing history because of two long-time organizational pillars: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Crosby and Malkin helped the Penguins climb from the depths of the NHL to the pursuit of a third title in the last nine years and, potentially, the first repeat win in the salary cap era.
"They're both special," Penguins winger Phil Kessel said. "If you watch them out there, they do some pretty special things."
Good fortune is largely why both ended up in Steeltown.
The Penguins were the NHL's worst team in the 2003-04 season, but it was the Capitals who drew the first pick and opted for Alex Ovechkin. That left Malkin there for the taking at No. 2. Over a year later, every team in the league had a shot at the No. 1 pick following the 04-05 lockout, but the Pens — one of four teams with the maximum three lottery balls — emerged as the winner of the Crosby sweepstakes.
A franchise was changed — and perhaps saved — as a result.
Crosby and Malkin have already won two Cups for the Penguins and rank as two of the most prolific post-season performers in NHL history. Crosby is tied for ninth all-time with 1.11 points per-game, trailed closely by Malkin in 15th at 1.07
"They just do whatever it takes to win," said Justin Schultz, struck by the practice habits and competitiveness of the duo when he joined the Penguins last season.
No shortage of motivation
Crosby said he was motivated more by the opportunity to win than any history at stake. Getting back wasn't easy — the Penguins won two series in seven games — and he wanted to take advantage. Pittsburgh also lost his and Malkin's first trip to the final in 2008 and after winning in 2009, needed another seven years just to get back once more.
"We wanted to get back here and we knew that it was going to be difficult and there'd be a lot of obstacles and we found a way to get here now so it's up to us to do something with the opportunity," Crosby said.
The Cole Harbour, N.S., native can join one-time mentor Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Wayne Gretzky as the only players to captain back-to-back Cup winners in the last 30 years. He could eclipse even Mario with a third Cup (Lemieux has added two as an owner) and add to an already storied legacy, which includes a Conn Smythe Trophy.
Crosby and Malkin have already made a dent as the first team in the cap era to reach the final four times. They managed to get back this spring despite losing their best defenceman, Kris Letang, for the season and top goalie, Matt Murray, for the better part of the first two rounds.
The two are described by teammates as understated leaders who drive the group mostly by example. Malkin, though, has been chattering more and more lately in the dressing room, according to Chris Kunitz, one of only five players left from the Cup-winning team in 2009.
It was little bits of positivity such as, "We can do this!" or "We've got to get better here!"
Kunitz thought Malkin, much like Crosby, was pressing the issue because he knew how rare the opportunity this opportunity was.
Both players have had shredded foes again in the post-season, ranked 1-2 in scoring — Malkin with 24 points, Crosby with 20.
Crosby set up Kunitz's series winner against the Senators and had six points over the final five games of the series. Malkin had three assists in a 7-0 Game 5 win and then scored his seventh goal in a Game 6 taken by Ottawa.
"I think when that happens you kind of get that hair on the back of your net and start watching him change the dynamic of the game," Kunitz said.
Long in the shadow of Crosby, Malkin was oddly snubbed for the NHL's 100 greatest players list despite boasting career numbers that match almost anyone — even Crosby.
"His body of work speaks for itself," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. "But I think my sense of being around Geno is that his priorities are just trying to help this team win and trying to accomplish our team goals, which ultimately is a Stanley Cup. He's been a big part of them in his tenure here."
"I think these guys are ultimately driven to win championships," he added of his two stars. "I think that's their No. 1 priority."