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Penguins' phenoms double the impact

The Pittsburgh Penguins were mired in a five-game losing streak, begging for offensive production, when coach Michel Therrien decided to unite his superheroes, pair Batman with Robin.

There had been occasions late in games when desperation had moved Therrien to such a tactic, prompted him to shift rookie wunderkind Evgeni Malkin from center to the right flank of Sidney Crosby, the NHL's supreme offensive force. And every time the move was made a wondrous magic seemed to ensue, which got Therrien to thinking that tip-toeing the balance beam was best left to gymnasts.

"Why not start it from the start?" Therrien said Friday morning. "That's the philosophy."

If rival coaches shudder over the notion of Crosby as a facsimile of Wayne Gretzky, the idea of Malkin portraying Jari Kurri escalates the nightmare. Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff could have been speaking on behalf of the Eastern Conference when he said pregame Friday that he'd prefer separation to facing the two in tandem, the more widespread the chasm the better.

Like "out west," Ruff said. "One in L.A. and one in San Jose."

The Penguins arrived at HSBC Arena Friday night riding a two-game winning streak, which could have been dismissed as trivial were
it not for the dulcet harmonies of Crosby and Malkin in concert. Sid the Kid struck for two goals and four assists to tighten his grasp on the NHL scoring lead. The Genie chipped in with a goal and two assists, seizing the top rung among rookie scorers. The connection's been instant between two players, one from Nova Scotia, one from Russia, with little more than youth, a uniform and stirring talent in common.

"The language barrier obviously is there right now, but it's funny to be able to play to someone you can't really talk to and still find spots out there and read off each other," Crosby said. "Hockey's kind of a universal language."

Crosby, at 19, has fast become the face of the new NHL, the brightest light in a constellation of young stars. His presence, and depth of performance, tends to steer attention away from Malkin, 20, the first player in 79 years to score in his first six NHL games. But there was no overlooking Malkin during Pittsburgh's 4-2 win over the Sabres, not when he wheeled deftly, effortlessly in the Buffalo zone to set up a Jordan Staal goal, not when he accepted a cross-zone pass and jolted Ryan Miller's water bottle with a laser of a slap shot for goal No. 19, not when he was heralded as the game's first star.

Malkin alongside Crosby could be a duo here today, gone tomorrow, given how coaches toy with their lines. At the same time, it's hard to imagine Therrien tinkering with a combination that heightens Crosby's senses, broadens his vision, as if anyone thought that were possible.

"I think that it opens your mind a bit more," Crosby said. "When you're playing with someone that creative you might make a few more high-risk plays that typically you might not make because you know that someone like him is going to be really ready for it.

"It goes that other way when he has the puck. You might go into spots where maybe not every guy in the league might be able to make that pass but someone like him could. I think you just open your mind to a few more ideas but at the same time it's still hard work and in that sense it doesn't change much."

And to think Malkin's still feeling his way around, acclimating, as was Crosby's challenge last year, although to a lesser extent.

"For him this year it's a learning process, learning about the NHL and learning about the culture, learning, first of all, the language," Therrien said of Malkin. "I'm really impressed for a young kid coming in to play like he's playing. And he's going to get better. There's no doubt in my mind he's going to get better."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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