Walk around just about anywhere in Pittsburgh these days and you're likely to come across someone decked out in the latest fashion statement to hit the city, a black "Two-Headed Monster" T-shirt with pictures of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby emblazoned on it.
Maybe that's why the Carolina Hurricanes have been having nightmares about the Penguins superstars throughout these Eastern Conference finals.
|Evgeni Malkin's 12 playoff goals have been only topped by Sidney Crosby's 14. (AP)|
Quite heavily, too. Pittsburgh's remarkable one-two punch has come up big throughout these playoffs, ranked first and second in scoring overall. But against the Hurricanes, they have taken their games to another level. The duo has combined for 14 points in the first three games of the series, which now sees the Penguins one win away from a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals and a likely rematch against the champion Detroit Red Wings.
"I don't think we're looking too far ahead, really," said Crosby, who has a league leading 14 goals in the playoffs and last week tied the legendary Bobby Hull's record when he opened the scoring for a sixth consecutive game. "We're still not there yet."
That seems to be little more than a formality now. The Hurricanes, who came into this round riding high after winning two series as heavy underdogs with Game 7 road wins, have looked spent and sloppy. Star players like Staal and goalie Cam Ward have not been particularly sharp. More important, Carolina has yet to find anything even remotely resembling an answer to the Penguins high flying centers.
So what does Carolina do now?
"Well, we're willing to shave these beards off," defenseman Tim Gleason said. "Look everybody knows who they are and they're obviously doing a heck of a job over there. It's going to take a full team effort, but we've got to figure them out."
That's easier said than done of course. Malkin and Crosby have been carrying the Penguins through the playoffs in a way not seen around Pittsburgh since the days when a couple of other ice magicians named Lemieux and Jagr were casting their spells and leading the team to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992.• Series: Penguins 3, Hurricanes 0
Against Carolina, they have been on a mission, especially Malkin, whose production didn't keep up with Crosby in the latter stages of the playoffs last spring when the fresh-faced Penguins were clearly going through the difficult process of learning how to lose before they could learn how to win.
Malkin heard the critics in last year's Finals and again when he struggled early in the second round against Washington. But the NHL's regular season scoring champion and MVP finalist found a way to flip the switch in Game 3 against the Capitals and has been on an incredible tear since.
"I think my teammates have helped me in the series against Washington," Malkin said. "After I talk to my linemates, things have been better." Much better. Malkin has now reeled off six consecutive multi-point games and leads the playoffs with 28 points, seven in the last two games, including five goals. Malkin has been in such a zone, he was able to set up Ruslan Fedotenko for a goal that put Game 3 against Carolina away with a no-look back pass between his legs.
"Because we both speak Russian, I knew he was open and behind me," Malkin said. "I passed because he talked to me. [He said] right here, free, free."
Malkin, who tends to avoid postgame news conferences because he still struggles with English, drew a few chuckles from the assembled media with that comment. But Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said it actually demonstrated how important the maturation process has been for the 22-year-old Malkin, who is still adapting to North America three years after coming over from Russia.
"He's a young kid, and it's tough because the culture has a lot to do with how they react," Bylsma said. "We take it for granted, but it's not the easiest thing to do with the culture he's coming from, coming here and dealing with all the media, and being focused on playing every night.
"So I think as he gets older and more comfortable with his situations and the playoffs, and you see him playing like he can. The great thing about our team though is that we play the right way, we get to the offensive zone, and it gives our good players a better chance to be around that net and make those plays. "
Sounds like a Hurricane warning.