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Malkin playing with the "Hart" of an MVP

by Sam Kasan
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin's nickname is commonly known as Geno. But during his two-goal, three-assist, five-point performance in Pittsburgh's 6-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers Tuesday, the Mellon Arena crowd chanted a new nickname for the Russian forward: "MVP!"

Of course, Malkin shrugged off the idea in his usual humble manner, although, the wide grin on his face showed that enjoyed entertaining the idea.

"It feels great," Malkin said. "I'm trying. Why not?"

Malkin is trying to become the fourth Penguin to win the prestigious NHL award: Mario Lemieux (1988, '93, '96), Jaromir Jagr (1999) and Sidney Crosby (2007).

Malkin is no doubt deserving of consideration for the Hart Memorial Trophy. He is arguably the best player in the world right now. Just consider how dominant his play has been this season. Malkin ranks first in the NHL in points (102), assists (70), even strength points (65) and road points (53). Not to mention, Malkin has carried the Penguins at various points this season and has been key in the team's resurgence in the standings. Malkin certainly has a legitimate resume.

"When you look at that award, it's an award where they look for someone specifically who puts their team over and above and makes them win and (Malkin) does that for us," captain Sidney Crosby said. "There are other candidates out there too, but he certainly does that for us. I don't think he's too worried about it. I think his play proves itself and you leave it up to other people to decide that."

"That is something for (the media) to figure out," interim head coach Dan Bylsma said. "We have the luxury of watching it happen. On a night like tonight you see Malkin do it in a couple of different areas. We're going to get them playing the right way and together as a team. When they do you get nights like this from Malkin and the previous game from Crosby, so it's a luxury to have from my standpoint."

However, the Hart Trophy may not be the only hardware Malkin brings back from Las Vegas this summer. His five-point performance helped him eclipse the 100-mark plateau for the second straight year and open up a comfortable lead in the scoring race.

Malkin's 32 goals and 70 assists are good for 102 points, 10 more than second-place Crosby's 92 (27G-65A) and 12 ahead of Alex Ovechkin's 90 (49G-41A). But Malkin wasn't claiming the title just yet.

"Sid and Ovechkin are good players," Malkin said. "It's a big deal. It's not done, 10 more games. I'm trying."

If Malkin maintains his lead, he'll become the fourth Penguin in history to have his named engraved on the Art Ross Trophy, joining Lemieux (6 times), Jagr (5 times) and Crosby (1 time), and it would mark the 13th time in the last 21 seasons that Pittsburgh has held the honor. It sometimes feels like the Art Ross belongs to city of Pittsburgh. Crosby would like to see the trophy returned to its rightful family.

"I think that's very important," Crosby said. "You see the guys who have won it here before in Pittsburgh it's pretty amazing and it would be great to add (Malkin) to the list. I love to see him do well. He deserves it. I'm happy for him and as long as we keep winning I think everyone is happy and when he is playing like that we have a great chance to win."

Malkin's five points against Atlanta tied a career high and was even more impressive considering he's not playing at 100-percent health. Malkin missed practice Monday and has been playing through an illness for the past few days.

"I (don't) feel great," Malkin said. "(Wednesday is) a day off so I'll rest."

"For the last couple of games maybe he wasn't playing at his best but at the same time now you can see that he is getting healthier and is playing much better," defenseman/occasional translator Sergei Gonchar said.
"(MVP) is an award where they look for someone specifically who puts their team over and above and makes them win and (Malkin) does that for us. I think his play proves itself..." -- Sidney Crosby
Malkin didn't play like a man stricken with illness against Atlanta. He skated hard, furiously backchecked and relentlessly attacked on offense. He also celebrated each goal with his trademark enthusiasm and exuberance. When Malkin is playing that way, he is playing at his best.

"Just to see him smile again is good; it's the most important thing," Gonchar said. "He is a special player and we are fortunate playing on the same team with him."

"It opens your eyes to see how good of a player he really is and you want him to do well," newcomer Chris Kunitz observed. "You want to see him succeed. He's happy and you can see his aura and those things, he's smiling and if he's confident and playing well then the team is playing confident and doing well."

And ultimately for Malkin, the team playing confident and doing well is more important than his own individual successes.

"It's great but I am happy because we win and we played great," Malkin said.

Spoken like a true MVP.

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