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Friday Four: Penguins' Malkin no longer under radar

by Kevin Weekes / NHL.com

Each Friday throughout the regular season Kevin Weekes will be bringing you his Friday Four in his Weekes on the Web blog. He will be blogging about four players, teams, plays, trends or really four of whatever in the NHL that have caught his eye.

A Hart Trophy candidate, a team that is deeper than I initially thought, a team that continues to roll by now faces some adversity, and the curious case of a championship team is all in this week's Friday Four:

1. EVGENI MALKIN

The interesting thing for me is I think a lot of times Malkin will defer a little bit when Sidney Crosby is healthy, and go into full superhero mode when Sid is hurt because he knows he is needed. This season, I find Malkin is just playing at his elite level all the time.

Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin
Center - PIT
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 30 | PTS: 49
SOG: 130 | +/-: 3
He has 49 points in 42 games, including three straight two-point games. He has huge respect for Sid, but Malkin knows he's, one, a Conn Smythe Trophy winner, he knows he's a top-five player in the world, and he's playing like that without deferring. He's playing to the level that he is capable of. He's dominating.

Part of Malkin's success this season traces back to some new training techniques he used in the offseason. He's starting to talk publicly about them now too, but he incorporated a lot of running and track work into his routine working with Ilya Kovalchuk's trainer in Russia. The track work has helped Malkin become more explosive, not that he wasn't already explosive.

I'm not sure people give Malkin enough credit for how hard he works. He deserves it. I remember when he hurt his knee, that summer he brought Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar to Russia to work with him. He's a hard worker. He deserves to be recognized for that.

Overall it's just nice to see Malkin getting the recognition he deserves as a great player.

You might be ready to ask, 'Hey Weeksie, did Malkin ever not get recognition for how great he is?' Of course he has long been considered one of the best in the world, but my point is that when you think about the Penguins you think about Sidney Crosby first, second and all the time. Hey, he's Sid, why wouldn't you think about him, but then it's like, 'Oh yeah, they have this other unbelievable guy that is an awesome, great, superstar too.'

Malkin actually does fly under the radar sometimes; not this season.

2. NEW YORK RANGERS

We always talk about Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist, and for the most part this season there has been good reason to do so because the Rangers star players have been their best players. That's so important.

The thing for me that was a bit of a worry was how they would be able to replace important depth guys like Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle, not to mention an important leader like Brad Richards. Remember, last season the Rangers were an excellent four-line team because of those guys, but I was worried about what they would become without them.

Well they're just fine. Their bottom-six group of forwards this season might not be as productive as it was last year, when they had Pouliot, Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard as a third line, but at the same time from a team standpoint the Rangers are playing very well in large part because of the depth they have.

Any time you can go out west and sweep every team out there, that's crazy. To sweep California on the same road trip, in four days, is almost an impossibility. The Rangers did that because they're playing the style of game that we know they should play, the style of game they're built to play. They're playing fast.

Notice now that the only time the Rangers get in trouble is when they don't play that style. When they play slow, just up and down the middle of the ice, they have problems.

When the Rangers play to their speed, which they have tons of, it benefits them. This is a fast team, and when they play fast by using both the length and the width of the rink they beat you by winning forechecks and being first to position. Those are their gifts and you have to play with them. It's a big part of their identity.

3. NASHVILLE PREDATORS

First things first, obviously they're hoping for the best for Pekka Rinne right now. He could miss up to five weeks with a knee injury. I thought he could be a 50-game winner this season, but now it will be tough to get there, if not impossible.

But let's not forget what this team is about, and let's give Peter Laviolette a lot of love here. I played for Lavvy in Carolina and he's a good coach. He's obviously had success, been to a Stanley Cup Final twice, won it once. The thing that I respect for the job he's doing here is he's allowing these guys to attack but he also hasn't ruined how they play defensively. He's been able to retain some of that Nashville identity.

The Predators have allowed 91 goals in 42 games, fewest in the league. I know, Rinne is a big part of that, but so is everyone else. Their goal differential, not including goals awarded for shootout wins, is plus-32, second behind the Chicago Blackhawks. That's crazy.

Laviolette and his staff, namely Kevin McCarthy, complemented what Nashville already had in place with what the Predators wanted to become.

Undercover they have one of the best defenses in the NHL. Shea Weber is a Norris Trophy candidate and we know what he brings, but Roman Josi has taken huge, huge, huge steps. The other guys they have there in that group with Ryan Ellis as a skill guy, a still-developing Seth Jones, Mattias Ekholm, and a grit-and-sandpiper guy in Anton Volchenkov, makes it a deep blue line.

Craig Smith has played better this season. Colin Wilson has made major strides and is playing to his size the way he can to be a difference maker.

What else can you say about Filip Forsberg? It's beyond unreal. For all the great moves that general manager David Poile has made, you can maybe put that one at the top of the list. That was sleight of hand, just unbelievable.

And the reclamation project of Mike Ribeiro has really worked. He's been great.

Nashville is a great city. They love their team. It's a great in-game experience. The fans are awesome. They deserve this. Now let's just hope Rinne can get back quickly and be the same goalie he was pre-injury.

4. LOS ANGELES KINGS

I have a lot of love for the Kings so I have to temper this next rant by first saying I think they're one of the most, if not the most ideal organization in the League now from coaching to front office to positional coaching to development. They have a big stud center, a stud defenseman and a stud goalie that they drafted and developed. There is a lot to love about the Kings. A LOT!

But, and you knew this but was coming, it's almost like now they get bored in the regular season. That's a dangerous game to play. That's a very dangerous game to play.

Kings players and coaches know that too. I talk to guys out there and they keep telling me they are nowhere near where they need to be. I'm like, 'OK guys, you know you're a good enough team, so turn up the dial on the heat a little bit, would ya.'

They haven't done it yet, but if you play the it's only the regular season game you're playing a big game of risk. You run the risk of not getting in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and you exert so much extra energy trying to get in there because you don't treat the regular season the way you probably should. You have to do so much in the last 15 to 20 games that you wouldn't have to do if you just played to your strengths all year.

They're not playing with the same integrity or intensity from the middle of the ice. When you play the Kings you normally have to earn your ice. Whether you're a puck carrier or supporter you have to earn your ice by skating through a body or two, a stick or two. Right now, guys are getting to the net easier against L.A. than they should be.

That's a bit of a worry right now overall, but I always play the long game with the Kings. They're never a short play for me because I just assume they'll figure it out. For hockey fans and for the Kings in general, let's hope they can get some consistency because I love everything about their team and organization.

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