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Malkin in the middle: Rookie of the year Evgeni Malkin expects to be better @NHLdotcom

PITTSBURGH - There's no hiding Evgeni Malkin any longer.

Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins' 21-year-old Russian star, was forced to sneak away from his homeland pro team and make his way clandestinely to the United States last year to play in the NHL.

Once he finally arrived in Pittsburgh, it was evident very quickly what the Penguins had: A young scorer who not only complemented league MVP Sidney Crosby but often made him better. Malkin had 33 goals and 52 assists for 85 points, one of the best seasons for a first-year player in NHL history.

In most other NHL cities, Malkin would be a franchise player, the one whose Rookie of the Year face adorns billboard ads and the media guide cover. Not in Pittsburgh, where Malkin assumes a lower-profile role behind Crosby, who won a scoring title and the league's top two individual awards before turning 20.

That's a perfect situation for Malkin, who is only gradually becoming at ease with life in a new country and with a language he was uncomfortable speaking in public a season ago. Let Crosby be the man in Pittsburgh - OK, the kid. Malkin doesn't need to be a franchise poster boy, not yet.

"I feel great this year, I know pretty much everybody in the locker room and it's great to be here," Malkin said, speaking through interpreter George Birman.

To ease Malkin into the NHL, the Penguins allowed him to live last season at defenceman Sergei Gonchar's house. Malkin is back at the Russian defenceman's home this season, but perhaps not for long as the Penguins are encouraging him to become more self-reliant.

Malkin isn't taking formal English lessons, but is learning the language the same way French-speaking Mario Lemieux did in 1984 and 1985 - from television and magazines.

On the ice, the language barrier isn't a problem. Malkin has been seen talking more in English while playing, and he seems to understand most commands from the bench and on-ice chatter by his teammates.

"I've been in the league a long time, and I never played with a player like Sidney or Malkin," said Stanley Cup-winning forward Petr Sykora, who signed with Pittsburgh during the off-season.

Malkin's scoring touch, stick-handling ability and skating skills were evident from the start as he scored at least one goal in each of his first six games, the first player to do so since the NHL's inaugural season in 1917-18.

But Malkin's production fell off toward the end of the season and the playoffs, with the NHL's 82-game schedule no doubt playing a part.

Malkin was accustomed to playing in about half that many games in Russia, which may explain why he didn't score a goal in his final nine games - counting a five-game playoff series against Ottawa - and had only two goals in his final 19 games. He was limited to four in his final 29 games.

"But I feel much stronger this season compared to last season," Malkin said. "I think I'm in good shape."

Malkin, drafted by Pittsburgh with the second pick in 2004 after Washington took Alexander Ovechkin at No. 1, also believes the Penguins will be better, too - even though they improved from 22 wins in 2005-06 to 47 a season ago.

The Penguins, who open the season Friday at Carolina, added defenceman Darryl Sydor and Sykora during the summer. They also persuaded 41-year-old forward Gary Roberts to re-sign after picking him up in a productive late-season deal last March.

"We added two great players," Malkin said. "We should have a great season."

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