|Evgeni Malkin has 89 points, including 38 goals and 51 assists, following Tuesday’s game at Tampa Bay. Watch Malkin highlights|
A year ago at this time, Malkin’s goal-scoring prowess dipped. He put the puck in the net just four times during his the last 21 regular-season games, and had no goals in a five-game first-round playoff series loss to Ottawa.
He still finished with 33 goals, 85 points and the Calder Trophy. Yet, even he knew there was much more he could have done.
This season, without Sidney Crosby by his side for 21 games, Malkin’s doing it.
No Russian player ever has led the NHL in points, but Malkin and fellow countryman Alexander Ovechkin have turned the race for the Art Ross Trophy into theater that merits a Broadway stage. It’s a nightly battle of one-upmanship.
Ovechkin is the current leader with 90 points thanks to his hat trick and two assists Monday night, giving him 52 goals and 38 assists. Malkin is second with 89 points, including 38 goals and 51 assists, entering Tuesday’s game at Tampa Bay.
Ovechkin was the top pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft while Malkin went second. Ovechkin was the League’s Rookie of the Year in 2005, while Malkin won it last season.
Their careers forever will be linked, the comparisons undeniable. However, through his interpreter and landlord, Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar, Malkin insists he is not focused on the race with Ovechkin.
“For me the most important thing is the team result,” Malkin said through Gonchar. “It’s not motivation for me (battling Ovechkin). I just try to improve my game and be better then I was last year. I’m trying to make sure our team makes the playoffs.”
Even so, he still has to feel a twinge of excitement knowing he’ll square off against his rival Sunday in Washington in the NHL on NBC Game of the Week. Talk about a thrilling backdrop to a crucial Eastern Conference game, one that marks the return of Crosby to national television for the first time since the Winter Classic on Jan. 1.
“I’m sure it’s going to be an exciting game,” Malkin said. “We had a great game in Pittsburgh (a 6-5 Caps win in a shootout Jan. 21), and I’m sure it’ll be another good one in Washington.”
It doesn’t take long to understand why Malkin is better prepared for the stretch run this season. It goes back to the striking differences between the summer of 2006 and the summer of 2007.
Two summers ago Malkin and his agent were diagramming plans to flee Russia for the NHL. He eventually escaped through a Finnish airport and surfaced in Los Angeles five days later. He arrived late to Penguins training camp after signing a contract in early September, and injured his shoulder in his first preseason game. He didn’t return until Oct. 18.
“I was escaping the country and it was a tough situation,” Malkin said. “I was dealing with a lot of things at that time, and because of that my preseason and conditioning wasn’t at its best and probably why, at the end, I wasn’t playing as well.”
This past summer, Malkin immersed himself in the strength and conditioning program used by Gonchar. He also had an entire year of NHL experience behind him. He knew the cities, the arenas. He was comfortable living at Gonchar’s home. He was comfortable in Pittsburgh.
“I knew what to expect and what was waiting for me,” Malkin said, “which is why I’m much better now and much stronger and prepared for the playoffs.”
Still, it’s no surprise, either, that Malkin’s recent surge coincided with Crosby’s high right ankle sprain, which kept him out from Jan. 19 through Tuesday’s game at Tampa Bay.
With Crosby healthy, Malkin was playing on Crosby’s left side. With the captain out, Penguins coach Michel Therrien shifted Malkin to center, his natural position. Ever since the move, he has raced up the Art Ross Trophy chart, and now is hearing his name associated with the Hart Trophy as League MVP.
Malkin registered 14 goals and 22 assists in the 21 games the Penguins played without Crosby. He had 26 points, including nine goals and 17 assists, in February to earn the NHL Player of the Month award.
“If you look at the way he’s playing, he’s not only playing well by himself and scoring those points, but he’s making people around him better,” Gonchar said. “I don’t know if it’ll be this year, but at some point of his career he might win (the Hart Trophy).”
Malkin’s confidence also is growing off the ice. He’s coming along in learning English; he’s not ready to grant interviews yet, but he understands most of what is being said around him.
In fact, when someone asked Gonchar if it was fair to say Malkin understands more than he can speak, Malkin replied, in English, “Yes.”
“He’s a fun guy to be around,” Gonchar added. “He doesn’t talk much, but at the same time he makes jokes and smiles a lot. He’s quiet around the house and spends a lot of time on the Internet, reading newspapers and chatting with his buddies back home. He helps around the house and with my kids. He’s a good housemate.”
And an even better teammate, one who this time around knows exactly what he’s up against heading into the last month of the regular season.
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.