PITTSBURGH -- Sergei Gonchar and fellow Russian star Evgeni Malkin played four seasons together in Pittsburgh, winning a Stanley Cup in 2009. That same season, Malkin won the NHL scoring title with 113 points and the Conn Smythe Trophy after scoring a League-high 36 points in the playoffs.
Still, Gonchar never saw a Malkin quite like this one.
After Malkin's 2010-11 season ended prematurely Feb. 4 with two torn knee ligaments, he started working out sooner -- and much harder -- than he did in any previous offseason.
Gonchar believes Malkin's statistics a season ago, with career lows in goals (15) and points (37) in 43 games, contributed to that determination. While the numbers were bound to be lower than usual because of the games missed to injury, Malkin had never averaged less than a point per game in the NHL.
"To me it seems like he is making that next step and maturing," the Ottawa Senators defenseman said of the 25-year-old Malkin. "He is more serious about his job. Last year, he didn’t have a successful season like everyone expected him to have, so obviously he was hoping to play better."
Gonchar also believes it helped that Penguins conditioning coach Mike Kadar went to Russia to train Malkin in person. While he was there, Kadar sent video of Malkin's workouts back to the Penguins.
"He was mentally ready for it. He was willing to do whatever it took to make sure he was ready for the season," said Gonchar, who often trained alongside Malkin. "Every morning he was doing whatever Mike was telling him to do."
Malkin and Gonchar remain close friends, and they shared a Thanksgiving dinner together on Thursday night before their teams met Friday night at Consol Energy Center. When Malkin joined the Penguins as a rookie in 2006-07, he stayed in Gonchar's house so that a fellow Russian could help ease his transition to a new league, a new country and a new language.
Now, the two almost always get together socially when their teams oppose each other.