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Malkin the main event in Radulov's NHL return

by Slava Malamud
Alexander Radulov scored in his comeback game for the Nashville Predators, but Evgeni Malkin still proved to be the main event in a 5-1 victory for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"Nobody expected him to score a hat trick or something like that," Malkin said about his countryman afterward.

He was right, a hat trick was definitely not expected. It is unlikely that many expected Radulov -- who just came back to the NHL after a four-year absence and had a long flight, jet lag and an adjustment to a different type of hockey to battle through -- to get off to any kind of a fast start. Especially against a Pittsburgh squad which lately has resembled an unstoppable machine. Or against Malkin himself, arguably the absolute best player on the planet right now.

What Radulov could realistically be expected to do in this game was to get the blood going in his legs, learn the ropes of the Predators' system, and try to help his teammates in any way possible -- which is a reasonable goal for a non-conference road game. An attempt to make a triumphant return will have to wait for in front of the home fans in the next contest, Saturday against Winnipeg.

"I am absolutely not happy with myself. I need to be quicker. There were moments of confusion, too, where I didn't know where to be in certain situations. It did get a little better as the game went on." -- Alexander Radulov on his play

And in the end, Radulov completed this minimal goal. He got going, he learned the ropes, he worked hard. He threw in the team's only goal of the night into the bargain. Too bad there wasn't much he could do to actually help the team. Malkin and the Penguins made sure the Preds were beyond salvation Thursday night.

"I am absolutely not happy with myself," a dissatisfied Radulov said of his play after the game. "I need to be quicker. There were moments of confusion, too, where I didn't know where to be in certain situations. It did get a little better as the game went on."

There is little doubt that Radulov can and will be faster and that this goal won't be his last in the League. He is nothing if not quick on the uptake, and his team is surely capable of much more than it showed in Pittsburgh.

"Players of his level will never drag a team down," Malkin said of his long-time friend. "He can only help, with his scoring, especially on the power play, and his ice awareness. It's all about adapting right now. He told me earlier this morning that he didn't have a chance to practice as much as he wanted to lately."

Malkin himself, of course, didn't make Radulov's transition any easier. This season, Geno simply won't allow anyone to upstage him. Everything that is happening in and around Pittsburgh happens pretty much as a direct result, or against the backdrop of Malkin's brilliance, be it Sidney Crosby's second comeback or James Neal's career season. It would have been unreasonable to expect Radulov's debut to escape the same fate.

The truth is, there is simply too much Geno in almost every game the Penguins play. He can amaze with highlight-reel dekes, he can create a huge number of scoring chances himself or for his teammates, he can rip victories from the proverbial jaws of defeat or sculpt them with artful touches of his talent.

Thursday night, Malkin unloaded 10 shots on Pekka Rinne, most of them huge slappers, twice beating the big goaltender with wicked top-shelf rockets. A game before that, Malkin was showcasing his passing abilities. It would be foolish to think another game where his stickhandling and skating are the main attraction is long in the making. Malkin simply does whatever is needed in any particular moment, and does it with equal brilliance.

The morning before the game, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma expounded on how impressed he is with the aspects of Malkin's play that do not necessarily make the highlight reels. He talked about the Hart Trophy favorite's ability to track down and strip puck carriers and about his newfound prowess on faceoffs, citing Geno's 60-plus winning percentage in the left offensive-zone circle.

"I've been spying a bit at practices at what Crosby and Staal do, the tricks they use," Malkin said. "Before I may have not understood fully what a huge part of the game it is. How it helps us control the game. So in the past, with about 20 faceoffs in a game, I may have gotten too tired, or unwilling to risk having my fingers wacked with a stick."

Malkin admits Crosby's work ethic and constant desire to seek out and eliminate weaknesses in his game has rubbed off on him. As a result, this season his multi-layered talents shine brighter than ever, making it nearly impossible for another player to outperform him in any particular game.

It's good that Radulov, who only two days prior climbed out of a plane, didn't set this impossible goal for himself. But by working hard and scoring, he has at least proven that he belongs back in the League and is ready to help the Preds along in their run at a Stanley Cup. Now is time to really get working. Hat tricks may become an expectation for Radulov before too long.
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