The latest installment of Pittsburgh's Sid vs. Geno discussion began on Nov. 14 when Evgeni Malkin—Geno to intimates—returned after missing seven games with a shoulder injury and helped the Stanley Cup champions to a 6--5 win over Boston. Without Malkin the Penguins had won just two of those seven matches as Sidney Crosby, lacking his power-play mate and occasional winger, had no goals, just three assists and a -5 rating. On the night Malkin reappeared, Crosby had a goal and two assists. "They bring out the best in each other," Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik says. "They're team-first guys, but [at the same time] they don't want to let the other guy get too far ahead."
The Most Valuable Penguin debate started in earnest midway through 2007--08 when Crosby sustained an ankle sprain and Malkin tossed the team over his shoulder and lugged it around: He had 20 goals, 26 assists and 14 multiple-point games in 29 matches without Crosby, and the Penguins went 16-9-4. Last season Pittsburgh won all five games that Crosby missed.
Sid did the carrying in the 2008 playoffs—he had a team-high 27 points while Malkin went without a point in six of the Cup-runner-up Penguins' final 10 games—but Malkin was the 2009 postseason MVP and scored a playoff-high 36 points. He was, however, helped in the '09 finals by Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who framed the Sid-Geno debate by playing his top defensive pair and No. 1 line whenever possible against Crosby.
While it's clear whom Babcock fears more, NHL scouts and players contacted by SI last week were split in their opinions. Some favored Malkin, even though Crosby is a more responsible defensive player and has raised his face-off percentage to an exceptional 56.3%. "Bigger, better shot," said a Malkin booster who scouts for an Eastern Conference team. "A superior offensive player." Added Capitals defenseman Brian Pothier, "Malkin makes everyone around him better. Not to say Crosby doesn't. But [Malkin's] more potent. He scares guys a little more, and they give him a little more space."
When SI posed the Sid-Geno question to Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, he remained steadfastly neutral, though he did note that Crosby "seems to be able to raise his game when the games matter most." Both Crosby and Malkin have 24 goals in 49 career playoff games, but NHL coaches rely on more subtle metrics. When Babcock shook Crosby's hand after Game 7 of last June's final, the Detroit coach said, "Nice leadership."
"Watch their body language on the bench," says a scout who backed Crosby. "It's Crosby doing the talking and Malkin doing the listening. No question Crosby makes that team go."
That's our vote too. Crosby, the captain, is Pittsburgh's MVP.
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PETER DIANA/PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE/ZUMA PRESS (CROSBY)
UPPING THE ANTE Crosby won the Hart Trophy in '06--07; Malkin (below) won the Conn Smythe in June.
GREGORY SHAMUS/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (MALKIN)
[See caption above]