PITTSBURGH >> Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are a decade into partnership that has helped guide the Pittsburgh Penguins to a pair of Stanley Cups, three combined MVP awards, four scoring titles and a seemingly endless wave of GIF-worthy goals.
It hasn't always been easy. There was the language barrier when Malkin first arrived from Russia in 2006 to join Crosby as the linchpins of a franchise trying to restore itself to its former glory. The natural growing pains that come when two supremely talented players try to figure things out. The giddy celebration in Detroit in 2009 that ended with Crosby raising the Cup, a triumph that seemed destined to be the launching point of a dynasty.
When it didn't happen thanks to six years of good but never consistently great hockey, the two remained committed to each other. The payoff came during Pittsburgh's renaissance under coach Mike Sullivan last spring, when the Penguins sprinted to a championship with their two cornerstone players leading the way.
"At the end of the day we both chose to be here and want to play together and that's not always the case on every team," Crosby said Tuesday. "I think there's a lot of respect there."
A sentiment that will be put to the test — at least briefly — when Crosby and Team Canada face Malkin and Team Russia in a World Cup of Hockey exhibition on Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center, the final tuneup before both squads before the tournament opens later this week in Toronto.
It's not the first time the Crosby and Malkin have been on opposite sides during international play. Six years ago, Crosby and Canada torched Malkin and the Russians 7-3 in the Olympic quarterfinals on the way to gold. Yet Wednesday will mark the first time when both stars will be at "home," even if Malkin will end up getting dressed in the visiting locker room.
Yes, Malkin knows the way.
"It's weird," Malkin said. "But I don't know how the fans feel, but I hope they support us."
That won't be in question. The curious sight of Crosby's No. 87 and Malkin's No. 71 in different hued sweaters on Pittsburgh's home ice will be jarring. Not nearly as jarring, though, as the prospect of both of them chasing after a loose puck in the corner with different agendas.
Seeing two of the best players in the game getting after it would make for great theater, which is exactly what the NHL had in mind when it brought the World Cup back. Yet it may also produce a dash of anxiety for the front office that pays Crosby and Malkin millions to line the rafters at Consol with banners.
It's a danger both are well aware of, and they're hardly the only pair of teammates who will find themselves putting country before NHL team chemistry during the tournament. While Crosby allows there's always the risk of running into each other, at some point you've got to just let that part go and focus on playing the game.
"You're not necessarily thinking 'That's my teammate,' in a split second," Crosby said. "Sometimes you might not even know who has the puck."
Even if Crosby and Malkin are unmistakable with a stick in their hands. Crosby anticipates the smack talk to be kept at a minimum, but didn't rule out making a run at Malkin if the moment requires it.
"If we do, it'll be in good fun," Crosby said with a laugh. "We're both pretty intense so it could happen. You never know."
Malkin expects there to be a little chirping, too, but for an entirely different reason. Turns out Crosby is such a motormouth on the ice Malkin doesn't even bother trying to keep up.
"Sid talks too much every game," Malkin said. "He talks too quick for me. Actually, when he's mad, I don't understand. But he's funny."
All kidding aside, the two find themselves with vastly different missions heading to Toronto. The two-time defending Olympic champions are heavy favorites to stand atop the podium on the same soil where the sport was invented.
The Russians, meanwhile, will try to erase the memory of a forgettable 2014 Olympics in Sochi when they were knocked out in the quarterfinals at home. The pressure will be firmly on Canada, giving Russia a chance to play the role of underdog, if a team that includes Malkin and Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin can be considered one.
"We lost the last two Olympics before," Malkin said. "It's a new challenge for the national team and we have a great team right now ... it's an amazing time to be here in my second 'home' town playing for the national team."