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Evgeni Malkin healthy, productive for Penguins

30-year-old learning from Sidney Crosby, regaining his place among hockey's elite

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The Pittsburgh Penguins don't have just one of the best players in the world. They have two of them. 

It's easy to forget that sometimes the way captain Sidney Crosby, for good reason, earns so many accolades. When posted its midseason votes for the Hart Trophy on Friday, Crosby was the frontrunner to be most valuable player. Evgeni Malkin was an also-ran.

But Malkin was right with Crosby in the Penguins' 8-7 overtime win against the Washington Capitals at PPG Paints Arena on Monday. He had a hat trick while Crosby had a goal and three assists. It was Malkin, in fact, who sparked a comeback from a 3-0 deficit and the offensive fireworks when he ripped a one-timer on one knee from the right circle, pumped his fists and let out a roar.

Malkin is right with Crosby among the scoring leaders, with 49 points to Crosby's 50, trailing Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid's 51. He has 21 goals, tied for third behind the Los Angeles Kings' Jeff Carter (23) and Crosby (27).

He has 316 goals in the NHL, tying Jean Pronovost for fourth on the Penguins all-time list, trailing Crosby (365), Jaromir Jagr (439) and Mario Lemieux (690). He has averaged 1.18 points per game in his career, 14th in NHL history among players with at least 500 games, and second among active players behind, of course, Crosby (1.33).

"He doesn't get as much attention as he deserves," said Penguins assistant coach Sergei Gonchar, a close friend and mentor. "Not only this season or that season. I think overall if you look at his career, I don't think he has been covered as much as some other guys. I think he deserves more credit for what he has done in his career."

Video: WSH@PIT: Malkin blasts one-timer from one knee

Malkin collected a number of individual honors his first six seasons: the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2007, the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2009, the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion in 2009 and 2012, the Hart Trophy in 2012. After winning the Hart in 2012, he said he hoped it wouldn't be the last one and that he wanted to be the best for the next 10 years.

He averaged more than a point per game the next four seasons. The problem was, he played 31 games of the 48-game schedule in 2012-13, then 60, 69 and 57 games of the 82-game schedules during the next three seasons. It's hard to be the best when you're hurt.

This season he has played every game and produced points at about his career average, as Crosby has since sitting out the first six games because of a concussion.

"Now I feel so much better," Malkin said. "I mean, it's, like, no injury, nothing. I feel a little bit more confidence. … Very important [to] be healthy. … It's not a full season already; just half. But I feel it. I hope it's good luck in myself this year and I [can] play all year. I know if I play I can do it. I know I'm a good player and [can] help the team win every game."

Rarely have the Penguins had Crosby and Malkin healthy and humming for a full season, but now they have a chance to have a season like 2008-09, when Malkin finished first in points with 113, Crosby was third with 103 and they won the Cup. They have a chance to become the first back-to-back champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, and to win it for the third time.

"I think [Malkin] sees the type of team that we have and the opportunity that's in front of us, and I think he sees a great opportunity with this group to win championships," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "For me, I think part of it is just his maturity and the approach that he takes to the game every day. He's got a terrific work ethic, and he's a driven guy right now. He's playing an inspiring game and he's done it consistently for the first half of the season."

Malkin is 30 now. He has a wife, Anna, and a 7-month-old son, Nikita. Ask about his son and he lights up. He talks about how he can't wait to get back from the road and stays home more than he used to, how every time he returns his son has a new face, how he loves to make him laugh and smile, how he wants more kids.

"I'm enjoying every day," Malkin said. "It's the best thing in my life. He's growing up so fast. He's started to try to walk, but you need to hold every time. I'm scared when he falls down. I'm nervous. He's changed my life but it's good things."

Gonchar said he can see the change in many aspects.

"I think he's more mature," Gonchar said. "It's probably another step in his life that he took to become better that way. The maturity shows not only off the ice but on the ice also."

Malkin, listed at 6-feet-3, 195 pounds, has dominated with skill and power at his best. But he has had to adapt, doing more short sprints in the summer, focusing more on rounding out his game during the season.

"I'm older every year," Malkin said with a laugh. "It's harder every year. I need to work harder. You see right now this League has lots of new guys, lots of young guys, and they get faster for sure. When I came 10 years ago the game [was] a little bit slower. Right now I think it's high speed. … I need to work harder and play the game right -- [defensive] zone, neutral zone and offensive zone."

Video: MTL@PIT: Malkin fires in one-timer for overtime win

Gonchar said Malkin has become a better player overall, more consistent playing within the system, doing little things like battling around the net defensively and helping out as the second man when a teammate is bottled up in the corner.

One of the keys: Crosby. Malkin doesn't chafe at playing with Crosby; he loves it. They are more than two of the best players in the world on the same team. Malkin posted a picture of himself with Crosby and the Cup on Instagram on June 14. The caption: "Best friends." The other day Malkin talked about Crosby the way Canadian hockey columnists do, raving about how he worked on faceoffs, soft passes, backhands, deflections.

"It means so much for me," Malkin said. "I come to the rink every day. I see how Sid works and I try follow him. It's, like, I know he's best player in NHL for the last two years, over the last 10 years, and I just try follow him. In practice I try to repeat [what he does]. When he scores I try do my best and score too, try just be better every day like him. He never stops. He tries to work hard every day, tries be better every day, and I look to him. … I'm a lucky guy to be here."

The Penguins are lucky too.

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