CHICAGO – It’s Sid the Kid versus Captain Serious.
The NHL’s biggest star against the sport’s reigning winner.
Yes, it’s a hockey heavyweight bout seven years in the making, and it’s finally set to happen Saturday night, at Soldier Field of all places. More importantly, it's the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Chicago Blackhawks in a "Stadium Series" game and a potential Stanley Cup finals preview.
Thanks to the NHL’s scheduling quirks and some Crosby injuries (groin and concussion), the Pittsburgh star and the Blackhawks captain have never faced off in a regular-season game.
“It’s weird,” Toews said Friday night after the Blackhawks practice. “I feel like it’s been a long time. Never had chance to play against Sidney. I guess you can say he’s the best player in the world, really. I think you look forward to a chance playing against guys like him or Evgeni Malkin, to see what they do and see how they do it.”
Crosby, who leads the league with 80 points, is considered by most to be the best player in the NHL, while Toews is lauded for his two-way play and his leadership.
Toews has won two Stanley Cups, 2010 (when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP) and 2013, while Crosby has won one with the Penguins in 2009. Both have won a pair of gold medals with the Canadian Olympic team.
Isn’t this a rare individual matchup the league should be marketing, especially in a rare Saturday night prime-time game on NBC? That's not really the hockey mentality.
“That’s not for me to deal with,” Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp said with a slight smile. “That’s for you guys. There’s a lot of good players in the game tomorrow, not just those two. Both sides have a bunch of stars, a bunch of great players. It’s up to you guys to talk about who you want to talk about.”
This is true. The Penguins lead the Eastern Conference with 84 points, while the Blackhawks are tied for second in the West with 84. Pittsburgh lost to Boston in last season's East finals, preventing this matchup in the Stanley Cup finals. Both teams are popular TV and ticket draws.
Sharp said Pittsburgh is one of his favorite "Center Ice" teams to watch on off days, while Patrick Kane said he mostly tunes into Penguins games to check out Crosby and Malkin.
"It's a good matchup to have for this type of game," Kane said. "Two teams that a lot of fans probably want to watch on TV, and when you mix it in with the Stadium Series type of game, it make s it even more interesting."
But let’s talk some more about Crosby and Toews.
Crosby sees a lot of similarities in their games, because they both take pride in playing defense.
“You know offensively, he’s really dangerous, he’s strong on the puck,” Crosby said of Toews after the Penguins practiced Friday night at Soldier Field. “He competes every night, so he gives himself a chance to be consistent that way, and then defensively, he takes a lot of pride in that side of things. I think just their whole group as a whole, they play together, and you don’t win as much as they have in the past without everyone kind of buying into playing a certain way, and he kind of leads the way there.”
Toews got a close look at Crosby again during the Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Because there was sparse practice time, the two never really went at it.
“The one thing I’ve noticed playing with him in the Olympics is the speed through the neutral zone,” Toews said. “You see all the highlights of all the goals he scores where he’s kind of sneaking through like three guys. A lot of that is because he’s able to find those holes because he does it with a lot of speed.”
Hockey isn’t a sport that’s decided in a star-versus-star fashion, but expect to see the two go at it Saturday night -- and expect to hear the broadcasters rave about them.
“I'm sure they're going to be out there against one another,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Jonny's line generally gets some of the best, and Sid plays a ton and Malkin plays a lot as well, so they'll definitely be out there against one another. Who knows how exactly the matchups will play out. The score could probably dictate that. But I think the top guys, I'm sure, are looking forward to what's going on.”