Prior to Tuesday night, it was an urban legend in Minnesota that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin even existed.
They were like the Loch Ness Monster and Sasquatch. Sure, there were pictures, but there was a chance they were doctored.
Guess what Wild fans -- the Pittsburgh Penguins stars are for real, their presence authenticated by an overflow sellout crowd at Xcel Energy Center during a 4-2 Penguins' victory.
As advertised, Crosby, the 20-year-old reigning NHL MVP, scored a backbreaking third-period breakaway goal and had the primary assist on three others for his ninth career four-point game. Malkin, the 21-year-old reigning Rookie of the Year, scored twice and had an assist.
In the end, the injury-riddled Wild -- which played without Marian Gaborik, Pavol Demitra and Niklas Backstrom and lost defenseman Kim Johnsson in the second period to a bruised leg -- fell to 0-3-1 in its past four, its longest winless streak since last November.
"They're that type of players," Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said of Crosby and Malkin. "Because we were playing tight, we didn't give them any room. As soon as they get it, they can create, beat people and score goals. That's what they did."
And it's not like Crosby, who has 17 points during a 10-game point streak, and Malkin, who has nine points in four games, were flying all over the ice. Sure, there was Crosby's sweet-looking breakaway for Pittsburgh's fourth goal, one in which he took Sergei Gonchar's home-run pass and took off with a burst of speed unparalleled in the NHL.
But Malkin's first two goals were fluky -- one after Crosby lost the puck behind the net and the other after former St. Cloud State forward Ryan Malone's shot ricocheted off Crosby's skate and to Malkin with a wide-open net staring him down.
"They didn't dominate," said Brian Rolston, whose sixth goal in eight games tied the score at 2-2 early in the third. "It was the little plays that they made. Through the neutral zone, we shut them down, I thought.
"Wes [Walz's] line did a pretty good job against them. It wasn't a big show out there, that's for sure."
But Walz, who skated next to Stephane Veilleux and Branko Radivojevic, wasn't taking any solace in shutting down the speed of Pittsburgh's prolific top line. After all, Crosby, Malkin and Malone had nine points.
Last year, the Wild shut down Washington's Alex Ovechkin and held Atlanta superstars Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa to no shots. But in recent losses to Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado, top scorers Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, Ales Hemsky, Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth have lit up the Wild like a jack-o'-lantern.
"We talked before the game that a lot of the other team's top guys are scoring lately," Walz said. "It was evident again tonight. The top guys score and we lost."
Veilleux tied the score at 1-1 with his first goal in 21 games in the second period, but 14 seconds later, Malkin scored again. But at 6:26 of the third, one minute after rookie James Sheppard's first NHL fight incited the crowd, Mikko Koivu threw a puck into the crease and Rolston pounced.
But Brent Burns, who has taken nine minors in the past seven games, tripped Maxime Talbot two minutes later, and Crosby set up Petr Sykora on the power play for a 3-2 lead, the eventual winner.
"Burnsie's having a tough time right now," Lemaire said. "He's capable of playing much better, and we need him to play much better. Let's say it's just a bad stretch."
Michael Russo • firstname.lastname@example.org