The best player in the NHL continues to wear a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater.
With Sidney Crosby on the sidelines, Evgeni Malkin has propelled himself to new heights this season ? a development that generated plenty of buzz during the NHL's all-star weekend in Ottawa. Not only did the Russian show off his improved English during a slew of interviews, he also earned heaps of praise from friends and rivals alike.
"The game's I've played against him and the games I have seen him play, you can really tell when he's on his game," said Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Kimmo Timonen, a fellow all-star. "Right now he's probably the best player in the league. The way he's playing is carrying Pittsburgh.
"Bad for us but good for him."
The Penguins entered the all-star break with seven straight wins and come out of it with a home-and-home series against the Toronto Maple Leafs starting Tuesday at Consol Energy Center.
Malkin's performance has played a major role in helping keep the team afloat in a season where Crosby, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang are among a long list of players to miss time to injury. Malkin himself sat out seven games with minor knee issues, but is feeling as healthy as he's been in a couple years and tops the league's scoring charts with 58 points.
He previously captured the Art Ross Trophy in 2009 and intends to do it again.
"I'm trying to win it every year but I've had injuries," said Malkin. "I have a great chance. Why not? I have great confidence now, I'm trying."
The 25-year-old should have an excellent opportunity to add to his totals during the two-game set with the Maple Leafs. During his NHL career, he's scored a remarkable 37 points (8-29) in 17 games against Toronto.
Malkin is focused on delivering an even stronger finish to his season than the start. His teammates believe he can do it.
"Right now he's the difference against every team," said Letang. "He's the best player in the NHL right now, the way he's playing. I think he makes a difference every game."
That's the biggest difference between the Penguins this year and last. Even though they continue to soldier on without Crosby, Malkin is around to pick up some of the slack ??? something he was unable to do after tearing ligaments in his right knee last February.
It was during the recovery from that surgery when Malkin decided to buckle down. He brought Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar to Moscow for a couple weeks over the summer and trained much harder than he ever had in the past.
"I've always said to him before, 'Geno, you can be great if you just put in the work,' and he wouldn't say anything in response," Kadar told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in October. "He hired me to train him this summer, and the first thing I asked before saying yes was, 'Geno, do you want to be great?'
"Geno started talking about the Cup."
Months later, he's still talking about it.
The Penguins seem to be a motivated group after briefly falling out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference during a slump in late December. They've since regained their footing and climbed back to fifth ??? leaving them well short of a championship favourite.
But in Malkin's eyes, they're ready to make a run.
"I don't worry what people think about Pittsburgh," he said. "I know we can do it again. We can win (the) Stanley Cup. I believe in my teammates. I'm not (reading) the newspaper (or listening) to what people say. I just know we can."