When Jordan Staal was the leading scorer for the Pittsburgh Penguins during this year's short playoff campaign, Hart Trophy candidate Evgeni Malkin was second on the team with eight points in six games.
There is no question about who is the biggest superstar at the IIHF World Championship.
Switching Pittsburgh's No. 71 to No. 11 on the red Russian jersey, Malkin has shined above the tournament's other stars. Russia beat Sweden on Friday, and Malkin won the game almost by himself - he scored a hat-trick and added two assists in a 7-3 win over a team with twelve NHL players in the lineup.
2012 IIHF HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP
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Malkin leads all players at the tournament with 12 points (six goals, six assists) in five games. Dallas Stars forward Loui Eriksson (Sweden) is next with nine points, while Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty (United States) and the Detroit Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg (Sweden) have eight.
After the Pens were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by the Philadelphia Flyers, Malkin needed some time to find new motivation. But then, as every year when he had the opportunity to play for Russia, he decided to prolong his season and play for gold at the world championships.
"It was a tough decision. But after some time I realized that we cannot win every year with Pittsburgh," Malkin told NHL.com after coming to Sweden for the tournament. "There is so many good teams in the NHL and the competition is extremely hard. It is clear that sometimes there will be some teams that will find themselves in a better shape. We had great season, but everything was different in the playoffs. I was very disappointed, because our team was full of fantastic players and we felt very strong after Sidney Crosby came back. It still hurts when I think about it."
After the beginning of the tournament, he seemed to find new verve right away. In his first game against Latvia, he scored two goals and added an assist to help Russia to a 5-2 win. He had at least a point in each of his five appearances, totaling twice as many points as Russia's second-best scorer, Alexander Popov, and six times more than another NHL star, Pavel Datsyuk, who remains behind expectations.
Malkin's performance has grown with the opponent, showing an amazing combination of skill, power, shooting efficiency and even fighting desire against Sweden. He clashed with Henrik Zetterberg and later with Johan Franzen, a reminder of the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup Finals between the Red Wings and the Penguins.
"There were some fights and a lot of provocation. But we went through that and came back hard in the third period," Malkin said after his team scored six straight goals to rally from a 3-1 deficit. "The fights were useless, but it's hockey and those things happen in big games like this. I did not want to fight with Franzen, instead I wanted to show good hockey."
That is exactly what Malkin did. The sold-out Ericsson Globe Arena was stunned with his marvelous dekes, passes and precise shots. Malkin scored twice from his usual spot in the right faceoff circle and finished the hat-trick with an odd man rush after some great passing with Popov. He wanted to demonstrate his dominance over the Swedes so much that he even tried a lacrosse-style offensive zone run -- he lifted the puck to his stick, dribbled with it through two defenders and stunned the crowd with his tricky move.
"I don't know," he answered the question, whether this was his best game of the season. "But for sure it was the best game of Team Russia. We showed strength and confidence. And we will need it, because (the next game) against the Czechs will be a tough one, too."
Russia remains unbeaten after five games in the Stockholm group. The team will probably face Norway or Latvia in the quarterfinals, which means a huge chance to advance to the medal rounds in Helsinki.
Just any medal is not enough for Malkin, who is playing in his fifth IIHF World Championship and yet cannot call himself a world champion.
"We have a great chance to win gold," he said. "I never won this tournament before and I'll do everything to help the team achieve that goal."