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Malkin looking for repeat ECF performance

by Chris Adamski

PITTSBURGH -- Averaging about a point-and-a-half per game and tied for the scoring lead on a team he's helped into the Eastern Conference Final, the reigning NHL MVP has yet to peak in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin
Center - PIT
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 16
SOG: 46 | +/-: 3

"Geno," Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said, referring to Evgeni Malkin, "has got another level."

If Malkin proves it in this coming series against the Boston Bruins -- which begins Saturday at Consol Energy Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS) -- it won't be the first time he does so in a conference final.

Malkin's most recent appearance in the Eastern Conference Final is often cited as the pinnacle of his career, which includes two scoring titles and the 2011-12 Hart Trophy as the League's Most Valuable Player.

Though held scoreless in Game 4 of a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2009, Malkin finished the series with six goals and three assists. It was a stretch that ultimately earned the Russian playoff MVP honors after the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in seven games against the Detroit Red Wings.

"Evgeni won a Conn Smythe Trophy but really elevated his game when he got to the third round," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "That series, he took it to another level."

Some in the Pittsburgh dressing room foresee a possible repeat performance.

"I had a couple turnovers in the first round but I think I played a little better in the second round," Malkin said. "And every game I feel so much better and have so much more confidence."

Malkin spoke with the media Friday for the first time since the Penguins eliminated the Ottawa Senators a week prior. He repeatedly referenced a "small injury" but added it's "a little bit better feeling now" and "all players have small injuries after games [in the playoffs]."

Malkin missed 17 games during the regular season, including most of Pittsburgh's final 13, because of a shoulder injury. At one point Friday, he pointed to his left shoulder.

If Malkin is being affected by an injury, it hasn't shown in his production. He had at least one point in each of the postseason's first eight games and has at least two points in seven of the 11 playoff games he's played. Malkin's 46 shots on goal are tied for the team lead.

"He's been playing really well for us," Letang said. "He's come up big in big moments. If you look at a series like the one he had against Carolina a few years ago, if he's like that in another series it's going to be fun. But he's playing really well right now. I'm not worried about him."

Not everyone shares Letang's confidence. Despite all the superlatives, Malkin's eight giveaways are third on the Penguins, and he had a minus rating for the playoffs until consecutive plus-2 games to close out the Ottawa series. In each of the Penguins' three playoff losses, he was on the ice for a critical third-period goal by the opposition.

Mistakes, such as the turnover to New York Islanders sniper John Tavares late in Game 4 against that led to the goal that evened the series, will be much harder to overcome against the Bruins, who had the fifth-most points in the NHL this season.

Pittsburgh swept the season series against Boston, but Malkin missed all three games because of injury.

"But I've played before against Boston and I know how tough it is to play against Boston," Malkin said. "It's a physical team, very fast and always tough games. But we beat them three times this year and I watched all three games and I hope I'll help my team."

Malkin might need to reach another level in order to do that, but he said the entire Penguins roster will have to do the same if they hope to defeat the Bruins.

"For sure, if we want to beat Boston we have to play better every game," Malkin said.

The Penguins won one playoff round between claiming the Stanley Cup in 2009 and eliminating the Islanders in the conference quarterfinals earlier this month. But they entered the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs among the favorites to again capture a championship.

Despite those high expectations, Malkin resisted the urge to refer to this season as a failure if Pittsburgh doesn't win it all.

"We just don't think about that," he said. "We know we can beat each team this year and we just stay positive and [not think] about the last [few] years.

"We have great team and great feeling inside the room. We know how to play and we're so excited for [Game 1]."

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