Jonathan Toews remembers watching Sidney Crosby lift the Stanley Cup in 2009 and imagining himself in a similar position.
Toews matched Crosby's feat a year later and climbed to the top of the NHL mountain a second time in 2013. He and Crosby have been two of the premier players in the League for years. They're considered two of the best captains in the NHL, and have been collecting individual and team honors at various levels of hockey for the past decade.
One thing Crosby and Toews have not done is play against each other. That will change Saturday when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks meet at Soldier Field in a primetime Coors Light 2014 NHL Stadium Series matchup.
"It's kind of weird that it's taken this long," Crosby said. "I think I've been hurt for a few games, but I think just knowing that either we're going to go head-to-head or if not, I think he's a guy who's pretty competitive. That whole group of guys that I've played with for the last few weeks are pretty competitive guys and have a lot of pride, so I'm sure they'll be up for this one.
"But yeah, going head-to-head against [Toews], I'm sure it'll be a good challenge."
These franchises have met four times since Toews joined the Blackhawks at the start of the 2007-08 season, but Crosby has been unavailable each time. He missed games against Chicago on Feb. 27, 2009, and Dec. 5, 2009, because of separate groin injuries. He missed games against the Blackhawks on Feb. 20, 2011, and Dec. 20, 2011, because of lengthy absences stemming from post-concussion symptom.
The first meeting of Crosby and Toews, two of the League's marquee stars, would be noteworthy at any point on the calendar. It carries extra significance because of the setting of this game at the home of the Chicago Bears and because of the stage they just shared six days ago.
Toews had the opening goal and Crosby followed with the second in a 3-0 victory for Canada against Sweden in the gold medal game of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Crosby centered the top line for a dominant Canadian club, and Toews was in the middle of the second line.
"We don't see Pittsburgh too often to begin with, but I think it is always fun to play against the top guys in the League and he is pretty much that guy," Toews said. "It will be interesting to see how we match up."
Crosby and Toews are just one of several interesting storylines for a game featuring two of the top franchises in the NHL. Chicago and Pittsburgh share similar recent history; each has climbed from the depths of the League standings to become a consistent resident in the Stanley Cup contenders club.
Crosby and Evgeni Malkin led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009. Toews and Patrick Kane led the revival in Chicago, and the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010 and 2013.
The teams are among the top Cup contenders again in 2013-14.
"They've had a great year and they have some firepower over there," Kane said. "We feel the same way about our team. I think that's a great matchup to have for this kind of game. It is two teams that a lot of fans want to watch on TV and when you mix in the Stadium Series type of game like this, it makes it even more entertaining."
The fact that the Penguins and Blackhawks haven't faced each other in more than two years adds a little extra spice.
"You might have three opponents like this for our team. You're playing a Western Conference team and we don't play them very often," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "They are Stanley Cup champs and again, one of the best teams, best records in the League. I think when the schedule comes out and before you know this is going to be an outdoor game, you know you're facing the Blackhawks first and foremost. You circle that as a big date, a big game on your calendar."
While Crosby and Toews experienced Olympic triumph, Kane and Malkin came back from Sochi with similarly frustrating stories to tell. Each struggled to produce at the expected levels, and neither came back with a medal.
Bylsma coached Kane with the United States team in Sochi, and had a chance to see more of one of the League's most talented players in person.
"You see it live, and he's a head-shaker," Bylsma said. "Some of the stuff that he does, bringing the puck up on our power play and distributing the puck, I had seen it and watched it, but he's just got some nasty skill with the puck. I call it 'head-shaker' because he makes a play and pulls up and floats a pass right onto someone's tape and you have three or four guys on the bench just shaking their heads at how good he is with the puck."
This game will not only be a matchup of two of the NHL's top clubs, but also a celebration of how the Blackhawks and Penguins have become two of the top hockey markets in the United States. They were at the bottom of the heap a decade ago; now they are in the midst of lengthy sellout streaks, consistently deliver strong television ratings and are among the NHL's go-to teams for events such as this one.
"Chicago is a team that everyone likes to watch on TV," Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "The way they play, I know the guys in our room has a lot of respect for the guys on their team and the way their team plays. I think it is a more of a measuring stick to see where you are at. It is a good challenge for our team."
Kane said, "I like watching Crosby and Malkin, just kind of to see how they're playing and see if I can pick up anything or what they're doing on the ice. They are, it seems like, a well-coached team that plays hard. The bottom two lines are tough to play against, and it seems like they follow a team-oriented structure that works for them. They've been a good team for a long time, and you can see why."
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