For years, hype for contests between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins centered on Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, with Evgeni Malkin lurking as one of many fascinating subplots in what became the best rivalry in the NHL.
The two franchises meet again Sunday (NBC, 3 p.m. ET), but it might be time for Malkin to take center stage. He is the reigning League MVP, and while Crosby's journey back from concussion-related problems dominated the NHL landscape, Malkin's return to dominance in 2011-12 after back-to-back injury-marred seasons is no less critical to Pittsburgh's near- and long-term outlook.
"I think it was more than anyone expected coming off the knee injury that he had," Phil Bourque, the Penguins' radio analyst, said. "It is one thing when you're talking about Sid and Geno [Malkin] and [Ovechkin], depending on what month it is -- Alex might catch fire when Sid and Geno aren't quite there, and people will say [Ovechkin] is the best player in the world.
Malkin won a scoring title and the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2008-09, but Ovechkin earned MVP honors and it was the Crosby-Ovechkin scoring duel that defined an epic seven-game series between Pittsburgh and Washington in the second round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
For the next two seasons, Malkin missed time with injuries and his production slipped. A major knee injury ended his 2010-11 season after 43 games, but he was committed to returning, not just as a great player but one who deserved to be back in the "best in the world" discussion.
Last season began for the Penguins without Crosby, but Malkin had proven he could shine in the captain's absence before -- Malkin lit up the League when Crosby missed time during the 2008-09 season with an ankle injury. Even when Crosby returned last season, Malkin continued to rack up the points en route to his second scoring title and the first Hart Trophy of his career.
"It is tough coming off injuries and being at an elite level," Penguins forward Matt Cooke said. "Last year he had a good year -- a healthy year -- and everyone saw what he could do. His size (6-foot-3, 195), the stuff that he does, and when you include how big of a man he is, it is rare. It is probably the rarest thing ever in the sport. You see guys with hands and guys who can skate and guys who have size, but it is so rare to find guys who have all of that."
Malkin and James Neal formed a lethal partnership, combining for 90 goals as two of the top four goal-scorers in the League. Neal had three seasons with more than 20 goals for the Dallas Stars and was on the cusp of becoming an elite marksman. When he arrived in Pittsburgh, Crosby and Malkin were injured, and Neal suffered through an incredible run of bad luck -- only one of his 52 shots on goal in 20 games with the Penguins found the back of the net.
"He has pure goal-scoring ability, but his passing ability is also phenomenal. The ability to go around defenders and hit a guy [with a pass] that you don't think he can see is something I found out pretty quick playing with him." -- James Neal on Evgeni Malkin
Last season his shooting percentage stabilized, and Neal and Malkin terrorized opposing defensemen. Neal, with his lightning-quick release, proved a perfect partner for Malkin and his playmaking skills.
"When you're playing with a great player, you watch his tendencies -- what he likes to do and where he likes the puck -- and you go with it," Neal said. "He wants the puck with speed all the time, so I just try to get it to him as much as possible. I know I'm going to get it back if I find a good spot. That's how we kind of started, and we talk more and more each game. After last year went really well for us, we found some good chemistry and hopefully we can keep it going.
"He has pure goal-scoring ability, but his passing ability is also phenomenal. The ability to go around defenders and hit a guy [with a pass] that you don't think he can see is something I found out pretty quick playing with him."
Malkin's size and skill have been evident since his days as a teenager playing at home in Russia. He was a consensus top-two choice heading into the 2004 NHL Draft, and would have been an easy No. 1 in many years. Still, Malkin's evolution into maybe the world's best player has taken time.
Crosby has become a better shooter and more adept in the faceoff circle. Ovechkin has become a better passer and still is learning to adapt when defenses are able to prevent his most-desired shooting options.
For Malkin, there was some growing up -- cutting down on unnecessary penalties, in particular -- and embracing the physical nature of the NHL. Given his size and abilities, his improvement in the physical part of the game has made him a nightmare for the opposition.
"I think the biggest thing I've realized being here is how competitive he is and the drive he has to win battles on pucks," Cooke said. "You think he's a finesse guy and he doesn't really have that element to his game, but it is definitely there and that was a big surprise for me."
Neal said, "I think people say that about Ovechkin's [physical play], because he will run around a bit and lay some big hits and run into guys. With Geno, it is more on offense that he will do it. He's not looking for a big hit, but he's physical with the puck. That is something that is hard to do, and a lot of guys can't. He can break down a 2-on-2 by putting the puck through a guy's feet and then bulling past him. He's a pretty special player."
The momentum from last season carried into the start of this one for Malkin -- when he was playing for his hometown club in Magnitogorsk, Russia. Malkin was dominant in the Kontinental Hockey League during the lockout, totaling 65 points in 37 games.
So dominant that he has a chance to accomplish a remarkable feat -- be one of the top scorers in multiple leagues in the same season. He certainly will finish among the KHL's top three scorers, and if Alexander Radulov doesn't collect four points in his team's final four games of the regular season, Malkin will finish second.
That success did not immediately transfer when Malkin returned to Pittsburgh. He had six points in the team's first six games, but untimely turnovers and penalties -- almost a reminder of more youthful days -- were a problem.
Malkin had a strong game Thursday with a goal and an assist in the Penguins' 3-0 defeat of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. He'll look to continue that level this weekend -- first Saturday against the New Jersey Devils, then Sunday when he, Crosby and the Penguins are in Washington for a reprisal of the Super Bowl Sunday showdown with the Capitals.
Crosby and Ovechkin will be there, but it is hard to say Malkin is lurking as a subplot anymore.
"I didn't watch him in the KHL, but things seemed to go pretty swimmingly over there for him," Bourque said. "When he came back, it didn't translate perfectly for him, and yeah, his frustration has gotten the better of him. He realized it and acknowledged it.
"The one thing about Geno is his blood boils hot and sometimes that gets him in trouble. He's so hard on himself and so fiery, that it can be hard for him. As he's getting older, he's trying to learn to control his emotions and use them in a good way. He takes it upon himself, which is a very refreshing thing. He looks at it and says, 'I need to play better for us to win.' They have Sid and a lot of other really good players here, but he takes the onus on himself that he has to play better for the team to win."