Since Sidney Crosby exited the lineup Dec. 5, the Pittsburgh Penguins have limped to a 9-9-0 record in his absence.
If not for the heroics of Evgeni Malkin, things could be a whole lot worse.
In those 18 games without Crosby -- and not to mention Kris Letang, one of the NHL's best offensive defenseman who returned to the lineup after a two-month absence Thursday -- Malkin has 15 goals and 15 assists. He has factored in 30 of the Penguins' 53 goals during that time (56.6 percent) and has been on the ice for a whopping 34 (69.8 percent) goals during that stretch.
Malkin has two hat tricks and eight multi-point games since Crosby's departure, which has helped keep the Penguins afloat in the Eastern Conference when they otherwise might be drowning.
SOG: 187 | +/-: 9
"I think he's been that way for most of this year. He's been dominant on the ice. He's been good at both ends of the rink and he's been maybe the best player, the most dominant player, in the League. He's buoyed our team when we've gone through a bunch of injuries."
Malkin said he hasn't felt more pressure to produce with Crosby out; instead, it's a group effort with everyone working harder in Crosby's absence.
"I don't know, I think everyone plays harder with Sid out," Malkin said. "We're not thinking about injuries. We play our system. We know how to play. We just maybe try to play better defensively, focus. Yeah, we lose six games before, but we don't think about this now. We focused on the new game."
For his teammates, Malkin's dominance is reminiscent of his play during the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he had 15 goals and 16 assists in 24 games as the Penguins beat the Red Wings in seven games in the Final. That performance earned Malkin the Conn Smythe Trophy.
This season is the first time since that 2009 postseason that Malkin has displayed that type of dominance. Injuries to his shoulder and foot cost him 15 games in 2009-10 and factored into his slide to 28 goals and 77 points in 67 games, numbers many players would envy but a far cry from his 113-point and 106-point campaigns the previous two seasons.
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This season, soreness in that same knee kept Malkin out of the lineup for seven games, but otherwise he has been brilliant. He entered the weekend leading the League with 54 points.
The usual recovery time for a torn ACL is about a year, but Malkin made it all the way back after just six months.
"You can see right now he's feeling great," said teammate Pascal Dupuis. "His body is holding up. They say for an ACL it takes a year. Well, he can be scary in six months."
"He's played very well since coming back in the lineup from the games that he missed," said Chris Kunitz, who has been on Malkin's line almost exclusively with James Neal during this 18-game run. "I think just being healthy and having the confidence and having that game face and smile on his face, you can tell he likes to be out there competing. When he's doing that, he's obviously the best player on our team. He's carrying our team quite a bit."
Kunitz and Neal have been the beneficiaries of Malkin's return to form. Kunitz has five goals and 11 assists in the past 18 games, while Neal has 10 goals and seven assists in that time. Both received assists on Malkin's second goal Thursday, an empty-netter. It should not be the ease of the goal that is remembered, but rather the chemistry the three forwards displayed in making it happen.
"I try to play 100 percent every game, but my linemates and teammates help me score empty-net goals," Malkin said. "It's not my goal because it was a gimme chance and gimme breakaway or an empty net. It's three guys. "
The Penguins were sliding hard between Dec. 29 and Jan. 11, losing six straight games. It was their worst skid since the 2005-06 season. But Malkin threw the Penguins on his back once again, delivering seven goals and two assists during their current four-game winning streak, which has vaulted them to sixth place in the East.
"He's been dominating," Kunitz said. "Every time you see him on the ice, he can either pick up the puck and wheel end to end, or it always looks like he's creating so much out there. It's been a lot of fun. I just try to get him the puck early so that he can do something special. He's obviously a key for why we've turned it around."
There's no timetable for Crosby's return, but until it happens, a healthy, happy and confident Malkin will continue to do the heavy lifting for the Penguins.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo