PITTSBURGH (AP) — They are megawatt talents so universally known in NHL towns that saying their names is not required, only their jersey numbers.
In Pittsburgh, there’s 87 and 71. In Chicago, 88 and 19. In Washington, 8 and 19. In Vancouver, 22 and 33.
Their task over the next two months is to somehow navigate the ever-uncertain waters of the playoffs, where sport’s most user-friendly trophy doesn’t always go to the teams with the brightest lights, merely the hardiest ones.
It’s a push-pull that dates from the earliest etchings on the Stanley Cup. Is it better to build a team around a pair of lamp-lighting point machines (and a hot goaltender) or four effective interchangeable lines (oh, and a hot goaltender)?
The first round marks a litmus test of sorts.
The Penguins and former MVPs Sidney Crosby (87) and Evgeni Malkin (71) face a relentless wave of New York Rangers, who happen to have the league’s best record.
The Chicago Blackhawks got Patrick Kane (88) back early from a shoulder injury just in time to join Jonathan Toews (19) in the lineup against solid if anonymous Nashville.
Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (8) and Nicklas Backstrom (19) powered the Capitals to a second-place finish in hockey’s tightest division and their reward is John Tavares and his buddies with the New York Islanders. The Islanders took the first game, 4-1.
The Vancouver Canucks bounced back from a nightmarish 2013-14 behind twin brothers Daniel (22) and Henrik (33) Sedin and now are taking on the upstart Calgary Flames, who won the first game of the series 2-1.
Stars win regular-season games and lots of them. If they don’t get some help, though, hoisting the Stanley Cup becomes another matter entirely.
“They’re elite players within the league,” Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said. “In the playoffs, the focus becomes shutting them down. And it becomes harder for them to score. I think they’ll get their goals and their points, but you’re going to need the guys behind them contributing offensively for us to be successful.”
Crosby and Malkin boast a Cup on their glittering resumes, but it’s 6 years old and growing more distant by the day for a team that struggled to clinch a ninth straight postseason berth. Kane and Toews have a pair of championships, but Ovechkin and Backstrom have never even made it to the conference finals while the Sedins came up short against the Bruins in the 2011 Cup Finals.
Still, the way Penguins forward Beau Bennett figures it, there are worse places to start than having two of the best players in the world in your dressing room.
“It’s hard because you have to be so aware when they’re on the ice because they can do stuff normal guys like me can’t do,” Bennett said. “You have to gameplan against them. At the same time, everyone is responsible. Everyone needs to contribute to wins in the playoffs.”
Yet it’s better if the guys paid to score the goals end up well, scoring goals.
It didn’t happen for the Penguins last spring. Malkin and Crosby found the back of the net a combined four times in seven games against the Rangers in the conference semifinals. New York rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win, kickstarting a slew of changes both on the ice and in the front office for the Penguins, a club that had been one of the most stable in the league.
Call it a byproduct of the way the game is called once the regular season ends. Power-play chances decrease. The open space that came somewhat easily in December and March evaporates.
“Everybody can be contained, if you will,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “I don’t know if you can stop everybody all the time, but you can contain them pretty well. Teams have done that in the past. That’s why teams that necessarily have all the stars or the talent don’t always win the Cup.”
In a “dead puck” era where scoring is down to 5.46 combined goals per game — compared to 6.96 per game when Crosby’s boss Mario Lemieux won a second consecutive Cup with Pittsburgh in 1992 — all that clutching and grabbing can squeeze the life out of the most vibrant offenses.
It has happened regularly to the Penguins over the last five years. Expected to develop into a dynasty after outlasting Detroit in the 2009 Cup Finals, Pittsburgh hasn’t even won a game in the conference finals since.
While Bennett is quick to defend his team’s depth, the Rangers aren’t quite buying it, not really. New York defenseman Matt Hunwick sounded just like every other team that’s faced Pittsburgh since Malkin joined Crosby in Pittsburgh in 2006 when asked how to keep the Penguins — thrust into the unfamiliar role of underdog — in check.
“It starts with the two guys in the middle, 87, 71, slowing them down,” Hunwick said. “They can see the whole ice … We’ve got to take those guys out of plays as best we can.”
They’re saying the same things in places like Nashville, which now has to contend with Kane and Toews after Kane recovered from a broken left collarbone quicker than expected. Yet Kane — just like Crosby and Malkin and Ovechkin and the rest of the game’s brightest lights — is quick to downplay his role even if the circumstances will require him to enhance it.
“I don’t think I’m going to try to go out there and be the one and only savior,” Kane said hours before having two assists in a 4-3 double-overtime win over Nashville to open the series. “I’m going to try to play my game. We have plenty of good players in here that can produce and do good things.”
And if the great players produce great things, all the better.
AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington D.C., and freelance writer Matthew Carlson in Chicago contributed to this report.
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