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Malkin has arrived as full-fledged star

by Adam Kimelman
PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Evgeni Malkin isn't going to seek the spotlight. But with the way the Pittsburgh Penguins third-year center has played, it's found him. That's what being a League scoring champion and two-time Hart Trophy finalist will do for a player.

Malkin should be right in the center of all the attention surrounding the Penguins' Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the Washington Capitals, but he happily exists on the periphery, going about his work mostly unbothered by national media that has embedded itself with the two teams.

The lion's share of the attention is focused on Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, and while they're great players, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma is puzzled as to why No. 71 isn't getting more focus.

"Haven't heard a lot about Malkin," said Bylsma, "and he's a guy that outscored them both."

The reason Malkin is undiscovered country for most people is due to the limited amount of English he speaks. For the first time this season he did interviews in English without a translator. Malkin never will be confused for Jeremy Roenick, but he's getting better.

"He's just more comfortable," said teammate and fellow Russian Sergei Gonchar, who served as Malkin's translator the last two seasons but quit doing it this season. "I believe it comes from his comfort level. His English is better, he's more comfortable around guys in the locker room. He bought a house, he has his family here. That comfort level is high and it shows."

That increased comfort level is showing itself on the ice. Malkin was second in the League with 106 points last season, but was better this season with League-leading totals of 78 assists and 113 points. He never went more than two straight games without a point, and had four five-point scoring streaks.

Malkin also improved his defensive play, finishing a career-best plus-17, scoring his first two NHL shorthanded goals, and leading the League with 94 takeaways.

"He had a good year last year," Crosby said. "Like anybody, with each year you learn. Consistency is something that always takes a while, but he seemed to find that, especially this year. As a player you're always working on things, always improving, and consistency is always something that you really need to work toward and he's done that."

Bylsma said the Malkin that fans and the media see is not the player he has come to know since taking over as coach in mid-February.

"The biggest surprise for me, having been here a short time, you see what the media sees," said Bylsma. "The few interviews he's given over the past few years, you see a guy that doesn't look like he's outgoing, doesn't look like he's comfortable communicating. But that's almost the opposite of what you get behind closed doors. He's comfortable with his teammates, comfortable communicating, comfortable communicating with his coach. The language, when the lights are on, it's tough for him, but it's not at all. There's a lot of smiles, a lot of communicating, a lot of ribbing his teammates that you might not see in an interview."

That is best exemplified by Malkin's role as an assistant captain this season.

"I see a guy who is very team-oriented," said Bylsma. "He's paying attention to what we're talking about as far as our game plan. He understands it. He's one of the guys who goes first in line (in drills). He's a smart, intelligent hockey player. Not that I'm surprised by it, but it's something you might not see from the outside looking in if you're not an astute hockey person."

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