CRANBERRY, Pa. -- The case for Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin winning the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP is simple, according to teammate Phil Kessel.
"Why should someone else be [it] than him, right?" Kessel said after practice Tuesday. "He plays on a good team with back-to-back Cups. He should win it."
Kessel might have been the most straightforward, but he wasn't the only Penguins player to speak on Malkin's behalf. Entering the game at the New York Rangers on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV), Sidney Crosby said Malkin has helped the Penguins get within one point of the Washington Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division.
"He's just turned it up to another level, especially in the second half," Crosby said. "He's just got that ability to take over games and dominate. Certainly, he's right there. You look at all the guys across the League, he's done an amazing job being a big part of our success."
Malkin, who missed four games with an upper-body injury from Nov. 18-Dec. 1, is second in the NHL with 87 points in 66 games, one behind Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov. He's third with 39 goals, three behind Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin and two behind Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine.
Video: DAL@PIT: Hornqvist one-times Malkin's pass for PPG
The numbers are impressive, but more eye-opening when put into context.
Malkin, who won the Hart Trophy in 2011-12 with 109 points (50 goals, 59 assists) in 75 games, has gone three straight games without a point once this season, from Oct. 11-14. Since Dec. 2, he has gone three straight games without a goal once, from Feb. 27-March 3.
In 30 games since the start of 2018, Malkin has 51 points (25 goals, 26 assists), which on its own would have him third on the Penguins for a full season, ahead of forward Jake Guentzel (41 points; 20 goals, 21 assists) and behind Crosby (76 points; 23 goals, 53 assists) and Phil Kessel (78 points; 28 goals, 50 assists).
"He's been one of our most consistent players, for sure," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "When you look at what [Malkin] has accomplished, from the start of the year to maybe Christmas-time on, I think his numbers speak for itself, his offensive numbers, for sure. He's been a dynamic player. He's a threat every time he's on the ice.
"This is as good as I've seen [Malkin] play since I've been the coach here. He's a terrific player. He's an elite player. He's one of those guys that could change the outcome of the game, and he's done that for us."
Malkin, who centers the second line between left wing Carl Hagelin and right wing Patric Hornqvist, has played more aggressively this season. After establishing himself as one of the premier playmakers through 12 NHL seasons, Malkin is shooting more.
Video: PIT@FLA: Malkin picks top corner from sharp angle
That fits in well with his linemates. Hornqvist routinely looks for rebounds while crashing the net and Hagelin uses his speed to push the attack, leaving room for Malkin to operate.
Hornqvist laughed when asked if Malkin is considered the shooter when they're on a line.
"Yeah, he shoots better than me," Hornqvist said. "[Malkin] tries to pull up and separate from the defenseman. ... It's a little different, but the way he's playing right now, I just try to give him the puck and try to get open."
Playing alongside Malkin has Hornqvist convinced he deserves to be a Hart Trophy candidate.
"He should be up there, for sure," Hornqvist said. "The way he's been playing here lately is the best I've ever seen him play. You can see it on the scoreboard too. He's one point behind Kucherov and he's been good for us. It's fun to play with him too."
The Penguins have reached second in their division after they were seventh with 39 points through 37 games. Kessel credited Malkin for playing a large role in the turnaround.
"You watch him play, he's playing hard," Kessel said. "He's doing all the little things right also. He's getting rewarded. He's scoring goals and making plays. I think [people] don't notice it because he's been around so long. He's done it for so long, and if someone else is doing it the same as him, they talk about them more.
"I don't think that should be the case. You watch him this year, he's missed four or five games also and is still almost leading the League."