SIDNEY CROSBY > GORDIE HOWE

I have great respect for all of hockey’s legends, Gordie Howe included.

But you’re allowed to be better than Howe. It’s not against hockey’s rules.

Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky were better than Howe.

Now Sidney Crosby is.

The hockey media and nostalgia fans have a hard time coming to grips: “Mr. Hockey, elbows, he played when he was 52, NO WAY SID’S BETTER!”

But Crosby is. I can’t imagine that Howe – a wing, not a center, who played mostly in a six-team league with 99 percent players from one country – impacted almost every game and almost every shift like Crosby does.

It’s a close debate. Those who choose Howe are not necessarily wrong. (Most of those who choose Howe never saw him play, however.)

My five best hockey players of all time are, in order: Lemieux, Orr, Gretzky, Crosby and Rocket Richard (with Howe sixth). You can argue that order and switch it however you like without being too crazy.

But putting anybody else in the conversation is insane.

Those six are in one class. The likes of Jaromir Jagr, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, etc. are in the next class.

Drop the nostalgia. Embrace the real.

THERE IS NO GOALIE DEBATE

Memo to Penguins fans: THERE IS NO GOALIE DEBATE.

Matt Murray conceded five goals in Game 3 at Nashville Saturday, and some wonder if he’s on a short leash for tonight’s Game 4, also at Bridgestone Arena.

The answer is an emphatic NO.

Even if Murray did play bad enough to get pulled tonight, he’d start Game 5 Thursday.

Murray is the Penguins’ No. 1 goalie. He long ago won that job in the eyes of the only man who matters, Coach Mike Sullivan.

Murray was hurt to start the playoffs, but went back in goal almost as soon as he was healthy and after only a minimal stumble by Marc-Andre Fleury, who deputized brilliantly in Murray’s absence.

That’s because Murray is the No. 1 goalie. That job can’t be up for grabs in the middle of the Stanley Cup Final.

Murray is the last guy Pens fans need to worry about.

Murray, like most of his teammates, was awful Saturday. But Murray is 7-0 after playoff losses. His goals-against average in those games is 1.59, his save percentage .935.

That’s more than a trend, and I’m betting it continues.

One thing is worrisome about Murray’s play: Five of Nashville’s nine goals in this series have beaten him on his glove side. That needs to be remedied, because the Predators are going to keep shooting at that glove.

NHL VP CAMPBELL = PINHEAD

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had a press conference yesterday, and Rob Rossi of Upgruv.com asked about the proliferation of unpunished head shots in the NHL playoffs.

After the press conference, NHL executive VP and director of hockey ops Colin Campbell confronted Rossi and told him his question was “crazy” and “out of line.”

That’s the NHL’s enforcer culture. It’s used on and off the ice.

Campbell is a pinhead. A hack as a player and coach, and a hack as an executive. Guys like Campbell are the problem with the NHL.  Fossils who believe in a way of hockey that shouldn’t exist anymore are all over the NHL’s upper hierarchy.

Rossi asked a totally relevant question, and Campbell came skating over with his stick up. What a buffoon.

Someday, the NHL will lose billions in a CTE/concussion lawsuit. That’s when the legitimacy of Rossi’s question will become apparent, and the NHL will have to pull its head out of the sand (or from Campbell’s southernmost orifice).

SENS & PREDS BOTH MEDIOCRE

I could easily wind up eating these words, but the romanticizing and overestimation of Ottawa and Nashville makes me want to vomit.

Ottawa made the playoffs by a mere four points. Their goal differential on the season was minus-2. The Senators had a nice little playoff run, helped greatly by a favorable bracket. But now, to quote Red Forman, “Fun time is over.”

Nashville was a .500 team in the regular season. They won 41 games, and lost 41. The Predators have performed brilliantly in reaching the Stanley Cup Final. But they’re crippled at center and would be a favorable matchup for the Penguins.

The Penguins did the playoffs backwards. They played the two toughest teams early. No disrespect to Ottawa and Nashville, but does anybody really think the Sens and Preds are better than Columbus and Washington?

Nashville’s Pekka Rinne is a terrific goalie, but he’s not a Vezina Trophy finalist. The Penguins have already deleted two of those in these playoffs: Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington’s Braden Holtby.

Ottawa and Nashville are good. Just not as good as the teams the Penguins have already eliminated. Their players aren’t as good as Columbus’ and Washington’s.

If the Penguins win tonight and get five days of rest and healing before the Stanley Cup Final starts Monday, that would bode extremely well.

MALKIN WON’T GO TO KHL

The AP in Moscow reports that Evgeni Malkin’s old KHL team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, will try to sign him this summer. KHL players will be able to play in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and it’s surmised that opportunity will be used as bait. The NHL doesn’t plan to make players available for PyeongChang.

The problem is, Malkin has a contract with the Penguins that runs through 2022. He can’t go to the KHL unless the Penguins release him, like New Jersey did Ilya Kovalchuk in 2013.

If Malkin tried to jump his NHL pact and play in the KHL, the International Ice Hockey Federation would intervene. Both leagues are member nations.

The ironic upshot might be that Malkin gets suspended from international play.

I can’t picture Malkin skipping out on the Penguins, or not wanting to play in the world’s best hockey league while he still has so much to offer at 30.

I also can’t picture the NHL not allowing players to go to the PyeongChang Olympics. The final discussion on that has yet to be held, believe me.

PENS CAN WIN, BUT IF THEY DON’T…

The Penguins look as fatigued as they did in 2010, when they lost to Montreal in the second round. The tank appears to be on “E”.

The Penguins have lots of positive experience to draw from. They’re just 11 months removed from winning the Stanley Cup. If any group can figure it out despite the heightened circumstances of Game 7 on the road, it’s this group.

But if the Penguins lose tomorrow, I’m not sure how much anybody can complain.

After all, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup just last year. They don’t have Kris Letang, which has crippled their transition game. As mentioned, they seem decidedly out of gas. They’re playing the Presidents’ Trophy winners, a team that tallied 118 points. They eliminated Columbus (108 points) in five games.

This isn’t a choke job, like twits on Twitter may suggest. Sometimes, you lose a big game. Sometimes, your problems catch up to you.

These Penguins have won too much to have negative labels applied. It’s a team of winners, and I bet they give it one heck of a run tomorrow night.

This series has been incredibly odd. The Capitals have out-shot the Penguins every game, and would have won the series by now if not for the inspired play of Marc-Andre Fleury in the Pittsburgh net.

But the Penguins took Game 3 to OT before losing, and led 2-1 after two periods in Game 5. The Pens could have won it already, too.

The Penguins’ defense is exhausted, sloppy with the puck, losing battles…any number of unflattering descriptions apply. But the Capitals’ defense isn’t much better. The Penguins just need to make them do more.

ALL THE PRESSURE IS ON CAPS, OVECHKIN

It would be terrific if the Penguins won another Stanley Cup.

But the franchise already has four, including two in the Sid and Geno era.

The Washington Capitals have zilch. The Pens eliminated the Caps just last year. Washington has never made it past the second round during the Ovechkin era.

In the upcoming second-round series between Pittsburgh and Washington, all the pressure is on the Capitals. In particular, on Alexander Ovechkin.

Ovechkin may someday top 800 career goals. But if he never wins a Cup, that failure will be the unofficial asterisk that mars Ovechkin’s individual stats.

Given the Caps’ roster situation, with significant free agency issues coming up – six regulars will be unrestricted – this season might be Ovechkin’s last best chance.

If the Penguins lose this series, no one will say they choked.

No one will question Sidney Crosby’s legacy, or Evgeni Malkin’s.

All the pressure is on the Capitals and Ovechkin.

How the Caps and Ovechkin handle that pressure will go a long way toward deciding this series.

MANAGING MINUTES = MARTIN’S JOB

Replacing Kris Letang is impossible. Just covering up for his absence is difficult. Doing so in a playoff situation is even more demanding.

But after one post-season game, things are copacetic with the Penguins defense.

Credit goes to those playing, of course.

But it also goes to assistant coach Jacques Martin.

Martin, an NHL head coach for 17 seasons, runs the Penguins defense. Minus his bell cow, Martin’s challenge is to balance his defense corps’ minutes. None of those dressed last night necessarily prospers when his workload gets maxed out.

Justin Schultz played 20:07. Ian Cole played 18:21. Every other defenseman played somewhere in-between. Penguins win, 3-1. Mission accomplished for Martin.

All six Penguins D played solid and simple. Break it up, break it out. More of the same Friday, please.

Kudos to Ron Hainsey for a quality NHL playoff debut at age 36 after 907 regular-season games: He was out there for 19:25 and went unnoticed. Mostly, that’s the idea.

COLE + CUTCH = SUCK

Last week, on my radio program, I mentioned that Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen must live up to their perceived pedigrees if the Pirates are to earn a playoff spot.

So far, no good.

It’s only one game. But bad play can carry over from season to season (see McCutchen from the end of ’15 through most of ’16), and Cole and McCutchen were nothing short of rotten in today’s Buc opener at Boston’s Fenway Park.

Cole allowed just one hit and no runs in his first four innings. Then Cole allowed six hits and five runs in the fifth, featuring his oft-displayed histrionics as he lost his cool when things went bad and leading to Cole’s too-usual early exit.

Cole isn’t an ace. On a legit World Series contender, he’s a No. 3 starter.

McCutchen was o-for-4 with three strikeouts, and his swing resembled a rusty gate blowing open and shut in a stiff breeze. He left four runners on base.

So, McCutchen is in playoff form. Cole, too.

It’s just the opener, and nothing to get too depressed about. But if two players ever needed to revert to their hoped-for form in fast and furious fashion, it’s Cole and Cutch. Neither showed any remote sign of that today.

Quick question: Did Manager Clint Hurdle err in not starting Chris Stewart, Cole’s usual catcher, or was he right to use his No. 1 backstop, Francisco Cervelli?

Cole should be effective throwing to anyone, and I understand the notion of fielding your best lineup on Opening Day. But if the plan is for Stewart to catch Cole, then Stewart should have caught Cole today. Not that it would have mattered.

MAILMAN DELIVERS STUPIDITY

Retired basketball star Karl Malone says NBA teams shouldn’t rest key players for selected regular-season games by way of readying for the grind of the playoffs: “Get your ass playing. It’s not work – it’s called playing.”

An opinion drawn from extensive championship-winning experience.

Cleveland and Golden State may disappoint little Timmy in Memphis (or wherever) by scratching LeBron, Steph, etc., but that’s too bad. Life sucks, and then you die. The NBA and its broadcast partners might be upset, but there isn’t any way to legislate against.

Malone then took his contrived blue-collar work ethic stance to an idiotic level when he added, “Besides, tell our underpaid service members and police and first responders to rest. They can’t.”

That’s a mind-boggling false equivalency. Pandering to the flag-wavers.

Lots of jobs are tough. If yours is too demanding, or too dangerous, or doesn’t pay enough, quit. You know who would do your job? SOMEBODY ELSE.

As French general/statesmen Charles de Gaulle once said, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” He’s dead now.

You know who would be really tough to replace? LeBron or Steph.

Colin Kaepernick, not so much.

Filmmaker Spike Lee says “shenanigans” are afoot because Kaepernick can’t get a job in the NFL. Lee says it smells “mad fishy.”

Yo, Spike:  That’s just the stench of Kaepernick’s performance. He was 1-10 as a starter for San Francisco this past season.

I supported Kaepernick’s protest. But by kneeling when the national anthem was played before games, Kaepernick took on baggage that makes him a lot less employable given his level of play. No team wants a below-average backup QB that’s a political lightning rod. That has nothing to do with right and wrong, and everything to do with business.

As for Lee, nobody cares to hear celebrity millionaires moralize anymore. But he’s far from the only one who can’t figure that out.