A more telling measurement is one that describes Crosby's scoring tendencies. He had a playoff-leading 14 goals in 17 games entering the finals. The combined distances of 13 of them (discarding an empty-netter) total just 156 feet, or roughly from the goal line to the far face-off circles. Crosby has scored only four goals from beyond 10 feet, a vivid contrast from last year, when his five goals (again, minus an empty-netter) in 20 games were all scored from beyond 10 feet. Crosby has willed himself to be a playoff goal scorer. "Just trying to go to the net," says Crosby, who created several chances while buzzing the crease in the first two games. "That's where a lot of pucks are this time of year. They're always there, of course, but it seems now that there are even more." Color-code this: The Kid doesn't have to be told to go play in traffic. "I don't think [the Penguins] try to score as many pretty goals as they did last year," Osgood said on the eve of the finals. "They're happier just to score the ugly, bang-it-in-the-net goals."
"They" most often means Pittsburgh's big two. While the Red Wings continue to draw offense from many sources, winning their two home games without a goal from Datsyuk, Zetterberg or Marian Hossa (their top three scorers), Pittsburgh rarely thrives without Crosby or Malkin making a heavy impact. The key for Pittsburgh is to get the 21-year-old Crosby and the 22-year-old Malkin going at the same time. For the past three years they have performed as if in an old vaudeville routine: After one finished some fancy hoofing, he would stick out his hand and cry, "You take it." In 2007--08 Malkin dominated when Crosby missed 29 regular-season games with a sprained ankle. But with Crosby back and producing, Malkin vanished in last year's finals against Detroit, going scoreless through the first four games. "There were plenty of times when I would say, 'Imagine if we ever got these guys going at the same time,'?" Shero said just before the start of the finals. "Well, in these playoffs, they have been Mutt and Jeff, 1A and 1B.... It's pretty simple after last year: [Malkin] sees Datsyuk with the Stanley Cup in Moscow and thinks, Why not me? Perhaps he realizes the importance of the [Cup] now."
Indeed, through Sunday, Malkin had 30 playoff points, two more than Crosby. They had scored 40% of Pittsburgh's goals and had points in the same game 12 times. Consider Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier of the 1984 Cup-winning Oilers. The then 23-year-olds combined for 61 points in 19 playoff games; Crosby and Malkin had 58 through Game 19. Add in that the Penguins had 67 goals overall, while those Oilers scored 94, and the aura of indispensability is complete.
"They're different animals," says Bill Guerin, who plays on Crosby's right wing. "Their approach to the game is different; if it were the same, I think it would be a train wreck. Geno is just kind of out-there, on his own program some days. Sid is a straight-line guy."
Even straight lines may have to detour when faced with a roadblock as talented and poised as Detroit. Crosby had worked tirelessly to improve his face-offs by 4.4%—only to fumble against Zetterberg in Game 1, losing 11 of 16, including the draw late in the second period that led to the winning goal. Crosby had also kept his previously visible emotions in check this postseason until he was moved to slash Detroit forward Kirk Maltby on the foot after the final siren of that game, when the Red Wings were queuing up to congratulate Osgood. "Under five ... like a three," Maltby said, when asked to rate the severity of the slash on a scale of 10. "It didn't hurt." Crosby said his love tap was a calculated response to what he described as Maltby's "lip service."
As the series shifted to Pittsburgh, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma had the chance, with the last line change, to liberate Crosby from Zetterberg State Penitentiary. The bad news for Pittsburgh is that teams that have won the first two games at home have won the finals 31 out of 32 times. (Last season's Red Wings are among those winners, having jumped out against the Penguins then, too.) If Pittsburgh fails to rally, the heat will be on the trinity that appears on a poster outside the new arena being built across from Mellon Arena: Crosby, Malkin and Marc-André Fleury, the goalie who played spottily in the first two games.
But this will hardly be Crosby's last stand, nor will the Gretzky comparisons end. Gretzky won the Cup in his fifth NHL season; Crosby is in his fourth. "That's how I want to be measured," Crosby said. "The Stanley Cup. That's how you measure everyone."
And that's how the Red Wings, 11-time Cup champions, are best measured. Closing out the Penguins would give them their fifth title in 12 years, a run worthy of mention alongside dynasties. Like Zetterberg knows, it's all about the company you keep.