As the Pittsburgh Penguins
wrapped up practice Thursday before leaving on a long plane ride to Winnipeg, Evgeni Malkin
wore a game-type look of determination on his face as he bore down on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
For Malkin, shootouts are personal. Despite possessing a skill set that most other NHL players only wish they could own, this is one aspect of his game that still needs work.
Malkin's initial shot went wide, prompting the ever-chatty Fleury to chirp a bit. Undeterred, Malkin returned to the far end, refocused, then mounted another rush, this time burying a wrist shot with such velocity that the puck ricocheted off the back of the net and streaked all the way to the blue line.
Finally satisfied with his work, Malkin banged his stick off the glass, partly out of celebration and partly out of frustration at missing his first attempt.
Call it a perfectionist at work. A perfectionist who is excelling once again in his craft. A star who is quickly regaining his status as a world-class athlete who can elevate an entire team with his singular play.
Center - PIT
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 24 | PTS: 39
SOG: 130 | +/-: 5
This same determination to succeed is visible to coach Dan Bylsma
during faceoffs, another of Malkin's perceived weak points. Last season, as Bylsma said, "He was a guy who really didn't want to take a faceoff," but in his last two games, Malkin has won 67 percent of his draws.
"To me, that's just an indicator of him wanting to raise his level, him wanting to be in that spot and him having another focus and gear to his game," Bylsma said. "I think you've seen that right from training camp."
The Penguins are seeing it now with Sidney Crosby
sidelined with concussion-type symptoms for the second time this season. They don't know when Crosby will be back, but they realize that if Malkin keeps playing with this single-mindedness and resolve, they will be replacing one superstar with another. And not many teams in major pro sports can do that.
"He's been great," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
said. "With him, you knew the points would come."
Malkin, now 25, was at that same level three seasons ago while winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP, the Art Ross
Trophy as the NHL scoring champion and the Stanley Cup. Malkin outscored Crosby during the regular season, 113-103, and again during the playoffs, 36-31, during the Penguins' first championship season in 17 years.
That Malkin, the one who was capable of raising his game to whatever level was needed, wasn't quite so visible the last two seasons.
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With Malkin admittedly fatigued in 2009-10 following consecutive Stanley Cup Final runs, his scoring total dropped to 77 points. Last season, when a severe right knee injury ended his year in February, he averaged below a point per game for the first time in his five-year NHL career.
Unhappy that his 2010-11 season ended so soon, and displeased still with generating only 15 goals in 43 games, Malkin put himself through the most demanding offseason of his career. There was a slight setback when the right knee flared up in October, causing him to miss seven of the Penguins' first 10 games, but since then he has looked like … well, Evgeni Malkin
Welcome back, Geno. In only a week's time, Malkin has vaulted from 20th place among the NHL scoring leaders into the top three after producing 3 goals and 5 assists in his last two games and 6 goals and 15 points in the six games since Crosby left the lineup.
With 39 points, Malkin trailed NHL leader Claude Giroux
of Philadelphia by only four points going into Thursday night's games.
"I'm not thinking about points," Malkin said. "I'm trying to find my game. I lost a little bit of time with my knee and I started slow. But I feel a little bit better, and I'm just trying to find my level and continue to play better every game."
Malkin appears to be putting his offensive game into overdrive, just as he did when he piled up 14 goals and 36 points in 21 games when Crosby was out with a high ankle sprain in 2007-08.
"There's a lot to what Geno is doing this year that's more than just who he is playing with," Bylsma said, referring to current Malkin linemates Chris Kunitz
and James Neal
. "His determination coming into camp. His mindset. The confidence. The focus with which he's playing."
Even if it seems to push him harder when Crosby is out, Malkin said, "I'm not trying to think about that."
"I know Sid is a very important player for our team. Of course, I have a few more chances (on the power play), and I try to do my best -- and try to score in every game," he said.
Malkin is nearly doing that; he has at least a point in 21 of 27 games, with 13 multiple-point games. Only Crosby, who has been limited to eight games, and Giroux have a higher points-per-game average than Malkin's 1.44. And Malkin already has as many goals (15) in 27 games as he had in his 43 games last season.
Malkin enjoyed his seventh career hat trick during an 8-3 victory over Buffalo on Saturday, then assisted on all three goals in the first two periods as the Penguins ended Chicago's five-game winning streak by winning 3-2 on Tuesday.
"I think he's the best player on the ice through two periods," Bylsma said. "(He) dominated when he had the puck, and in a lot of different areas."
Pittsburgh's third goal, by a slumping Tyler Kennedy
, also was manufactured in typical Malkin fashion.
"Geno won the faceoff and drove hard to the net, creating space for another guy, and TK scores a goal," Kunitz said. "It's unselfish plays that he makes that help our team every night."
Kunitz is in the enviable role of being a linemate to both Crosby and Malkin. He said there are numerous similarities despite the obvious differences in the games of what he calls "special players."
"Geno does a little more on-on-one. Sid's a guy who generates a whole lot of speed coming right through, blue line to blue line," Kunitz said. "Geno might turn back sometimes and make a play, like he did on our power-play goal (by Kunitz against Chicago). He was back by the d-man, (at) our blue line, and he made a seam pass to me coming across the blue line. Maybe it's a little more ad-libbing (than with Crosby)."
To Kunitz, there are three rules that any forward must abide by to play with Malkin.
"You've got to be prepared. You've got to have your stick down. And you've got to go to the net at all times," Kunitz said. "He's creative enough to beat two guys, come back and beat them again and then dish it off to the side. You just have to go to the tough areas of the ice, maybe try to draw someone away from him and, if a guy follows him, he's going to make a nice pass. And you've got to try to put it in."
The Penguins are 37-22-8 the last two seasons when Crosby doesn't play and have won their last two, a testament to Malkin's productivity even when his line -- not Crosby's -- is going against an opponent's top defensive line.
Malkin also is playing regularly against an opponent's best line, an assignment generally given in the past to Jordan Staal
"He's obviously playing his best hockey of the year the last handful of games and it's the time we need it," Kunitz said. "We've had some guys out of the lineup, for injury reasons, we haven't had our whole team. So it's nice that Geno, every time he's on the ice out there, is getting a goal."