PITTSBURGH -- Evgeni Malkin was leading the NHL in scoring even before Sidney Crosby returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup last week. But Malkin felt he would be an even better player once Crosby returned because No. 87 requires so much attention from opponents, it creates more open ice for his teammates.
Malkin was right. Sidney Crosby has been Sidney Crosby since he returned -- and Malkin has been an even-better Malkin.
Going into Thursday night's attractive interconference matchup between the Penguins and Nashville Predators, Malkin had 5 goals and 4 assists in the four games since Cosby returned against the Rangers on March 15 -- with at least one goal in every game.
Crosby hasn't found the net in his last 11 games overall, including the last seven he played before concussion-like symptoms sidelined him following a Dec. 5 game against Boston. But Crosby has 9 assists in the four games since he returned, giving him 21 points in the 12 games he's played in a season in which he endured injury layoffs of 20 and 40 games.
In those 12 games Crosby has played, Malkin has 9 goals and 19 points. So much for the perception that Malkin acquiesces to Crosby when the captain is in the lineup, willing to accept a less-prominent role.
"I'm not surprised at all," Crosby said of Malkin's production with both superstars in the lineup. "He's a great player; he's got every tool it takes to be consistent and to be as dominant as he is. As for me coming back, I don't think it's changed anything. It (Malkin's production) probably has helped me a bit to be able to come back and ease myself into it. That's something that anybody coming back will tell you, the better the team's playing, the easier the transition is."
The Penguins are 12-0-1 in their last 13 and 24-4-2 in their last 30.
With 93 points, Malkin took a nine-point lead over Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay and Claude Giroux of Philadelphia into Thursday's NHL games. Despite missing seven games earlier this season as he mended from offseason knee surgery, Malkin is in a very strong position to win his second Art Ross Trophy in four seasons.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Malkin is a better player since he returned from that disappointing 2010-11 season in which he had only 15 goals in 43 games before tearing two ligaments in his left knee. During his lengthy rehabilitation, most of it in his native Russia, Malkin took on the look of a focused, determined player intent on returning to the elite level at which he once played.
To do so, Malkin didn't just get into better playing shape, he worked on and polished up some often-overlooked aspects of his game.
"A few things strike me about his game that are real evident," Bylsma said. "When he's playing really well, he's the guy who takes the puck away from other team. He tracks the puck, lifts the stick and takes the puck the other way. In the offensive zone, he wins puck battles and strips people of the puck. … That's when he's at his best."
Bylsma added, "You see the highlights, but you don't often see the highlight of him tracking back, stripping the puck and going the other way."
Malkin also has improved significantly on faceoffs, once a major deficiency in his game. He is winning 47.2 percent of his faceoffs, compared to 38.5 percent a season ago, and is becoming so reliable that Bylsma now uses him for defensive-zone draws.
"What you're seeing this year that you never saw before was Geno in the faceoff circle winning faceoffs -- in the left circle, he's over 65 percent. And that has contributed to us scoring goals. You're talking about a guy who was under 40 percent last year."
A set play in which Malkin slams the puck directly to James Neal's stick on a faceoff has resulted in multiple goals this season.
No doubt Malkin will draw motivation Thursday from the return of fellow Russian star Alexander Radulov, who will play for Nashville for the first time since the 2007-08 season. Radulov played the last four seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.
The Predators and Penguins haven't played in 17 months, or since Pittsburgh won 4-3 in overtime on Oct. 21, 2010, at Bridgestone Arena.
The Penguins' projected lineup for their one and only meeting of the season with Nashville -- unless the two elite teams meet in the Stanley Cup Final:
Chris Kunitz - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal
Steve Sullivan - Jordan Staal - Pascal Dupuis
Matt Cooke - Sidney Crosby - Tyler Kennedy
Eric Tangradi - Craig Adams - Arron Asham
Brooks Orpik - Zbynek Michalek
Kris Letang - Paul Martin
Matt Niskanen - Deryk Engelland
Fleury will be back in net after Thiessen, a rookie with a 3-0 record, beat Winnipeg 8-4 in an up-and-down game Tuesday. Fleury has opposed Nashville only five times, going 2-2-1 with a 2.54 goals-against average.