PITTSBURGH - Evgeni Malkin must wonder when the season will ever end.
Whatever season this is. Malkin has played or practised hockey for all but two months since August 2008, a laborious grind even for a 23-year-old who is one of the NHL's best players. That's 203 regular-season and playoff games in 19 months for the Pittsburgh Penguins centre, plus four more in the Olympics, during what must seem like one endless season.
All that hockey is creating a worry for the Penguins as they begin defence of their Stanley Cup championship. To have any chance of repeating, the Penguins need Malkin to be the player he was in winning the playoffs MVP award last spring.
That's the player they didn't always see this season, when Malkin scored seven fewer goals and had 36 fewer points than he did last season, when he won the NHL scoring title. He ended the season as a minus-6, compared to his plus-17 rating of last season.
Maybe opposing the Ottawa Senators, an opponent that has rarely found a way to slow him down, will be what one of the NHL's elite players needs to regain his game at the most important time of the season. For the third time in four seasons, the Senators and Penguins meet in an Eastern Conference first-round series starting Wednesday night.
The Penguins were encouraged when Malkin scored five goals in his final five regular-season games, after missing eight of the final 13 games with a bruised right foot and an undisclosed illness.
"That's the Geno we want. He's playing hard, he's competing," Penguins centre Jordan Staal said Tuesday. "He has so much talent that, when he wants to, he's really almost unstoppable. Geno, I'm not too worried about him. He'll be fine."
The Penguins lost to Ottawa in five games in 2007, quickly ending their first playoff appearance in six years, but swept the Senators a season later before losing to Detroit in the Stanley Cup finals. This season, Malkin scored five goals as the teams split their four games, although the last was more than three months ago.
Ottawa's fans seem wary of the matchup against the Stanley Cup champions, as tickets still remain for Game 3 on Sunday and Game 4 on Tuesday. Senators general manager Bryan Murray is cultivating that nobody-gives-us-a-chance theme, saying "There's no pressure on us at all. Nobody expects anything of us. There's no question they're the favourite."
Senators forward Matt Cullen does expect a lot, saying, "We're a hungry group. You can feel it in the locker room ... but we know we have to play our best hockey to win the series. They have pretty good players over there."
More than anyone, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby needs Malkin to be similarly energized and motivated against the Senators, even though Ottawa goalie Brian Elliott has no playoff experience.
Crosby, who regularly finds himself opposing defencemen Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips, has two goals in 17 regular season games against the Senators. Malkin, by contrast, has taken advantage of Ottawa's determination to shut down Crosby to score 10 goals in 16 games.
"It helps a lot of players, Sidney and quite a few others, the way he plays and what he brings to the table," Staal said.
No team has repeated as the Stanley Cup champion since Detroit in 1998, partly because it can be demanding to play so many high-pressure games in a relatively short period.
While the Penguins were inconsistent down the stretch - partly because of Malkin's absence - neither Crosby nor coach Dan Bylsma believes they lack the motivation to pursue a third consecutive trip to the finals or second successive Stanley Cup.
"I think that, like any team, we had some good points during the season and some tougher ones, but the experiences you go through during the regular season and playoffs are something that can help you with those times, both good and bad," Crosby said. "We've gained a lot of experience and hopefully our best hockey will be in the playoffs."
Bylsma likes how Crosby seems determined to do what the Penguins did in 1991 and 1992 by winning two Stanley Cups in two seasons with Mario Lemieux as their captain.
Crosby said, "We're playing to win games - and when you win games, you find more energy."
"One of the things we've talked about during the season is not being satisfied with past accomplishments," Bylsma said. "This has been a unique year for a lot of teams, a lot of players playing a lot of hockey and going into the Olympics - that's always been a concern and we've managed that. From our top guy right down, we're not satisfied and we've worked to get back to this point. Our guys are ready to go."