|As a youngster growing up in Pittsburgh, Ryan Malone rooted for the Penguins. Years later, through various trades and player moves, he's not only become one, but is also an assistant captain leading Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1992.
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Who knew that years later it would take his favorite team falling to the bottom of the NHL for Malone to get a good opportunity at making it in the NHL?
"I was 23 coming in, there was a new coach, a rebuilding year, the 'Next Generation' as it was called," Malone, the St. Cloud State product, said. "It was a great opportunity to come in and catch a spot. I tried to seize the opportunity as best I could. Even though we were in last place, I kept my mouth shut and my ears open to take everything in."
The evolution of Malone began in 2003-04, when the Penguins were the worst team in the NHL, when Dick Tarnstrom was their leading scorer with a whopping 52 points and Sebastien Caron's nine wins were the most of any of their five goalies.
Today, Malone, who is the first NHL player born and trained in Pittsburgh, is an alternate captain for the Eastern Conference champions. He's a gritty crease-crasher on the Penguins' potent first power-play unit and one of four forwards who are regulars on the team's dominant penalty kill.
And once this hockey season is over, Malone likely will earn himself a hefty raise through unrestricted free agency.
"He got married this summer, has a newborn baby, and it's a contract year for him," Penguins GM Ray Shero said of Malone. "Whatever incentive he had to have the year he's had, good for him. The best thing I can say about Ryan this year – and I can say many good things about him – is he's been a really good teammate and he's become a leader.
"People looked at him as pretty care-free, but here is a guy that's taken a leadership role on a team that's in the Stanley Cup Final. When we had an injury to Gary Roberts earlier in the year, the coaches decided to give him the 'A,' and that really meant something to him."
Malone earned it by finding a way through losing and adversity to blossom into a reliable, top-two line NHL forward.
He showed he could score as a rookie when he piled up a team-high 22 goals on a bad team, but there were many parts of his game that needed to be better, namely his defense.
Malone put up another 22-goal season in 2005-06, Sidney Crosby's rookie year, and although he was far from a finished product, Pittsburgh's brass was starting to believe it had more in their 1999 fourth-round pick than it originally thought.
However, last season Malone came under scrutiny as his offensive production tailed a bit. He was out with a wrist injury for 18 straight games from Oct. 23-Dec. 5, but Malone finished with only 31 points on 16 goals and 15 assists despite playing the bulk of his time with Crosby and Mark Recchi.
He also was the subject of trade rumors.
"The challenge for him was to be a good player on a good team," said Shero. "It's not as hard to be a good player on a bad team. He said that to me this summer that was going to be his goal. He wanted to be a good player on a good team, and he thought this was going to be a good hockey team."
It became a better team because Malone finally put his entire repertoire together and became more than just another piece to the Penguins' puzzle.
He put up career-highs in goals (27), assists (24) and points (51). When Crosby went down with a high ankle sprain in January, Malone found chemistry on a line with Evgeni Malkin and free-agent signee Petr Sykora.
They've stayed together throughout the playoffs, and through three rounds Malone has six goals, including two in Game 5 against Philadelphia, and nine assists.
"We each have a role on the line," Malone explained. "I try to use my size in the corners to get those guys the pucks. Sykora is definitely the shooter on the line. We try to get him the puck wherever we might find him. He also does a good job of getting pucks from the wall to Geno (Malkin) in the middle as well as I do. We kind of let Geno do whatever he does, try to get open for him. We try to keep it simple. We have some good chemistry, and that's why we've done so well."
Malone also is the fearless guy on the Penguins' power play, the one who stands in front of the goalie and looks for deflections and rebounds. He has three power-play goals in the playoffs after scoring 11 in the regular season. Two of his six playoff goals have been game-winners; he had six of those in the regular season.
"I try to be a better player at the end of each season, continue to work hard in the summers to improve my game," Malone said. "This year, I kind of put everything together finally. My familiarity with other teams' arenas and players, different styles each team plays, it all kind of came together."
So on Saturday the Pittsburgh native gets to begin a journey his city hasn't explored in 16 years, since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr captivated it by sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1992 Stanley Cup Final.
Malone remembers it well. He was 13 years old and his father, Greg, was a head scout for the Penguins working under then-GM Craig Patrick. Ryan and his brother, Mark, went to every game. He used to wear a Ron Francis' No. 10 jersey.
When the series shifts to Pittsburgh for Game 3 next week, you can bet there will be a 13-year-old sitting somewhere in Mellon Arena wearing a Malone No. 12 jersey and cheering as hard for him and these Penguins as Ryan did for Francis and those Penguins.
If it weren't for some Penguin futility in between, there's a chance Pittsburgh hockey fans would have forgotten all about their favorite son by now.
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.