LAS VEGAS -- Just a few years ago, Evgeni Malkin would have shuddered at the thought of going on stage to accept something as big as the Hart Trophy, an honor that requires the recipient to give a speech in front of a large live audience in front of him and an even larger audience watching at home.
Malkin didn't trust his English. He wasn't at all confident in presenting himself as anything but a Russian hockey player who spoke only Russian.
Wednesday night at Encore Theater in the Wynn Las Vegas, Malkin stepped out of his old shoes and into his new ones. Not only is he now a Hart Trophy winner for the first time in his career, but he accepted the trophy at the 2012 NHL Awards show with a confident speech given in his still somewhat limited, yet vastly improved English.
He showed poise. He followed all the rules by thanking those who mean the most to him, including former teammate and landlord Sergei Gonchar. Then, after leaving the theater, Malkin stood on the podium, his hardware -- including the Ted Lindsay Award and the Art Ross Trophy situated in front of him -- and confidently answered questions from the media for nearly 10 minutes.
He's become a different guy off the ice just as he once again became a dominant player on the ice during the 2011-12 NHL season.
"It's a special day to me," Malkin said. "I hope it's not the last one. I try to work every year and I hope to be here again."
Malkin won the Hart Trophy by receiving 144 first-place votes from the 149 ballots cast by members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. He was a runaway winner over runner-up Steven Stamkos and third-place finisher Henrik Lundqvist after leading the League with 109 points on 50 goals and 59 assists to help the Penguins record 108 points despite playing 60 games without captain Sidney Crosby.
He had to miss the last two months of the 2010-11 season as well as the playoffs due to a major knee operation, but Malkin rehabbed over the summer and came back bigger, stronger and faster than he ever had been -- and this is a guy who was already a runner-up for the Hart Trophy in 2009, when he won his first Art Ross Trophy with a career-high 113 points.
"With Geno this year, the amazing part of what he was doing is that the other players, both his teammates and the other players in the League, (were) repeatedly saying things about how dominant and how special and how awesome some of the things he was doing on the ice," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who was in attendance at the Awards show. "How he was taking over games. How he was playing an almost unstoppable type of game. That's what Evgeni was for almost two-thirds of the year and you could see it in his own teammates and other players looking at him and the reaction of how special it is what he's doing on the ice."
Stamkos told NHL.com as much, especially considering Malkin lit up the Lightning for 11 points in four games, including three wins.
"There was no better player in the League this year," said Stamkos, the winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy for scoring a League-best 60 goals. "We saw it firsthand with the way he dominated us."
"Malkin deserved it," the Rangers goalie said. "He was outstanding this year and really dominated for a long time."
Malkin made sure to tell everyone he couldn't have gotten to this confident stage of his career without the help of Gonchar. They became fast friends starting with the 2005-06 season and played and lived together until Gonchar signed his three-year contract with Ottawa in the summer of 2010.
Malkin thanked Gonchar during his acceptance speech, and reiterated his feelings when he met with the media.
"I remember six years before, when I come, it was a different life, you know," said Malkin, who works out every summer in Moscow with Gonchar. "I'm not speak English. First (person) who took care of me, it's Sergei Gonchar. He's a great guy, unbelievable player. It's my best friend here. He always supports me."
Bylsma thought it was fitting that on his big night, Malkin made it a point to give Gonchar his due.
"It was a big part of Geno being comfortable, Geno growing as a player," Bylsma said of Malkin's friendship with Gonchar. "I think you saw when Sergei went (to Ottawa), you saw him grow even more. Now you're missing that mentor and friend, the guy who has helped you a lot, but Geno has stepped out even more from a language standpoint, a media standpoint, a leadership standpoint as well."
Malkin put it all on display Wednesday in arguably his most impressive performance in front of the cameras since he arrived in North America seven years ago.
But, he wasn't alone in enjoying this night of celebration in the NHL.
Lundqvist wasn't able to take home the Hart Trophy or the Ted Lindsay Award, but he did finally win the Vezina Trophy in his fourth time as a finalist. Lundqvist had 39 wins, a 1.97 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. He was the top selection on 17 of the 30 ballots cast by the NHL general managers and finished with 120 points.
"There are a couple of my heroes on here," Lundqvist said of the names already engraved on the Vezina Trophy. "Patrick (Roy), Dominik (Hasek) and Marty (Brodeur) have had great careers, so it feels good. It's been a goal for me."
Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson capped the biggest two days of his life by winning the Norris Trophy for the first time in his career. Karlsson, who was a first-time finalist for the trophy, signed a seven-year, $45.5 million contract extension with the Senators on Tuesday.
"It's just very special. That's the best word to describe everything," said Karlsson, who narrowly edged runner-up Shea Weber 12 points, 1,069-1,057. "Now I have to take it to the next level and go from here."
A couple of important pieces of the Blues' franchise-best season cleaned up in Vegas.
St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock won the Jack Adams Award for the first time in his career (he was a finalist in 1997, 1998 and 1999), and Doug Armstrong became the third different general manager to win the GM of the Year Award since it was introduced in 2010.
"I look at the guys over there at the Jennings, the coach of the year, the manager of the year -- they're all really team awards," Armstrong said. "That's the most rewarding part of this, to know you can't do this without all the other people in the organization pulling the rope in the same direction."
Colorado forward Gabriel Landeskog, a 19-year-old who finished with 22 goals and 30 assists, became the first Avalanche player since Chris Drury in 1999 to win the Calder Trophy. Florida's Brian Campbell became the first defenseman since 1954 to win the Lady Byng Trophy. He had only six penalty minutes all season.
Boston center Patrice Bergeron, who had 65 points and was successful on more than 59 percent of his 1,641 faceoffs, became the first Bruin to win the Selke Trophy since Steve Kasper in 1982. Montreal forward Max Pacioretty, who overcame a broken neck and put up a career-high 65 points, became the first Canadiens' player to win the Masterton Trophy since Saku Koivu in 2002.
Daniel Alfredsson won the King Clancy Award. Mike Fisher won the NHL Foundation Player Award. Shane Doan collected the Messier NHL Leadership Award presented by Bridgestone. And, Claude Giroux, who was the third leading scorer in the NHL with 93 points, beat out Pekka Rinne to become the cover athlete for EA Sports' NHL 13 video game.
However, it was Malkin who stole the night with his three trophies and his newfound confidence.
"It's the best day of my life," Malkin said.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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