Following practice in Newark, New Jersey, on Nov. 14, shortly after the Penguins announced first-line center Sidney Crosby had core muscle surgery that would keep their captain out at least six weeks, Malkin was asked about stepping up in Crosby's absence.
Midway through Malkin's answer, an alarm started blaring.
"I need to be fire," he said. "I will be fire."
Since that day, the center has 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists) in 36 games.
About three months removed from Crosby's surgery, the Penguins (35-15-6) entered Saturday second in the Metropolitan Division, three points behind the Washington Capitals, before hosting the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, SN). They went 18-6-4 without Crosby.
That might not have been the case if not for Malkin.
"I think he's shown, this year especially with what we've gone through, he's thrown the team on his back and just taken it to another level," Crosby said. "I've said it before, there's not many guys, probably only a handful, that can do that in the League. He's one of them. He's carried us for a while here."
Video: TBL@PIT: Malkin nets PPG from the circle
Malkin had 38 points (11 goals, 27 assists) in 26 games without Crosby, who returned in a 7-3 win against the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 14.
Crosby had four points (one goal, three assists) that night after missing 28 games; Malkin had three (two goals, one assist). Malkin was sidelined twice with an illness, against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Dec. 12 and the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 14, during Crosby's recovery.
Malkin, a three-time Stanley Cup champion (2009, 2016, 2017) with the Penguins, leads them with 58 points (18 goals, 40 assists) in 43 games. His average of 1.35 points per game is his highest since he averaged 1.45 in 2011-12, when he was voted the Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP and won the Art Ross Trophy as the League points leader.
It's been a bit of a resurgence for the 33-year-old in his 14th NHL season. Malkin has said he was disappointed with his performance last season, when he had 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 68 games, an NHL career-low minus-25 rating and a Pittsburgh-high 89 penalty minutes.
That led coach Mike Sullivan to meet Malkin for lunch early in the offseason, after Pittsburgh was swept in four games by the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference First Round.
"I felt, based on our discussions in the summertime, that [Malkin] would be a motivated player coming back to training camp," Sullivan said. "He certainly has [been]. As I've said, he's been a great player in this League for a long time. He's one of the best players of his generation. He's so capable. I suspected, based on our conversations in the summertime, that he would be a driven guy and a motivated guy. He has been."
Video: MIN@PIT: Malkin nets second power-play goal
When the Penguins opened training camp Sept. 13, Malkin said he trained more vigorously during the offseason. He returned to Pittsburgh two weeks earlier than usual after skating in Miami and Moscow.
"I want to show everyone I'm not done," Malkin said on that first day of camp. "I'm excited to show everything."
That plan was temporarily derailed in the second game of the season. Malkin tripped over Penguins defenseman Kris Letang and tumbled into the boards midway through the second period of a 7-2 win against the Blue Jackets on Oct. 5. He missed the next 11 games with a lower-body injury before returning Nov. 2.
After being held without a point in his first game back, a 2-1 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers, Malkin had 21 points (five goals, 16 assists) in the following 13 games.
"[Malkin], when he's on his game and plays the right way like we've seen lately, he's committed defensively and plays against top lines," Letang said. "When he plays like that, he becomes one of the best players in the League."
Video: PIT@COL: Malkin uses Rust's screen for go-ahead score
From being minus-25 last season, Malkin has improved to plus-11. Instead of 89 penalty minutes, he is on pace for 64.
The increased production is always welcome, but Sullivan said Malkin's turnaround can truly be found in the finer points of his game.
"I've been so excited about how he's played, his commitment to playing on both sides of the puck, his attention to detail," Sullivan said. "Some of the things that our coaching staff has asked him to pay closer attention to, he has. That's a credit to him.
"I think he really cares about the Penguins. I think he really cares about winning. I think he understands what it takes to win. He's been there before. We're really excited about where his game is at. We're going to push him hard to continue to keep his game at the level that it's been."