The Pittsburgh Penguins
found themselves in the same holes in the Stanley Cup Final that doomed them last year to a six-game loss to Detroit.
But they couldn't have felt more different about these deficits, and a big reason why is Evgeni Malkin
, who not only lifted the Stanley Cup with his teammates after Friday night's 2-1 win at Joe Louis Arena but took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP as well.
To truly understand the difference in the Penguins you needed to look no further than the podium at Mellon Arena on an off-day between Games 3 and 4 of the series, with the Wings up 2-1 in the series. The first three players to appear were Maxime Talbot
, Sergei Gonchar
and Malkin, who sat in the middle of the two other players.
Throughout the 15-minute session at the podium, Malkin was smiling and engaged in the process. Last season, at this same point, he was sullen, sick and searching for answers after being held off the board in the first two games.
Plus, he showed a humorous side to the public that rarely escapes from the dressing room.
Asked to comment on the play of Talbot, who scored twice in Game 3 and went on to become the Game 7 hero with two more tallies, Malkin did his best impersonation of Yakov Smirnoff, the famous Russian comedian.
"Yeah, (he has) little bit bad hands," Malkin said, trying to hold back a huge smile. "He has a lot of scoring chance and not score -- just empty net. It's OK, he (will) learn over the summer."
Talbot, sitting to the right of Malkin could only laugh as Malkin cracked wise at his expense -- which, according to teammates is a regular occurrence. Talbot says he has heard a variation of Malkin's press conference barbs too many times to count, a story that was confirmed by Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma
"You'll get that Max Talbot joke pretty regularly out of that guy," Bylsma said.
There are few players better than Bill Guerin
, the veteran Pittsburgh forward, at zinging a teammate. So, for him to give Malkin his seal of approval is quite notable.
"He's extremely funny," Guerin said. "You can tell when he is going to carve somebody because he goes right from English to Russian, so you can't understand it. That's one side I don't think people understand; I think people think he is kind of a quiet guy. But he's got a great sense of humor."
There's a lot that people don't understand about Malkin. During his struggles in last year's playoffs -- and let's quantify that by noting he had 22 points in 20 games -- he was painted by outsiders as sullen and uninterested. But nothing could be further from the truth, says Talbot.
"Last year, he was a little bit sick," said Talbot, who had been roommates with Malkin the past two years. "This year, he feels more healthy, more rested and it shows on the ice. He playing like he played all year, he's desperate, he finishes his check and plays with a lot of emotion and it's a big difference.
"Last year, he got down on himself and people started putting a lot of pressure on him and he was down. This year he is more confident and it shows."
It certainly does.
Malkin led all playoff scorers with 36 points in 24 games, five more than teammate Sidney Crosby
and 12 more than Detroit's leading scorer, Johan Franzen
. Malkin had points in each of the first four games of the Final, collecting three assists in Game 3 and adding a goal and an assist in Game 4 -- both Pittsburgh victories.
"I do believe his confidence level is higher," Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar
said Wednesday. "It seems like he has matured a little bit and is more comfortable on the ice."
A comfortable Malkin made for a comfortable Penguins' team.
Crosby, the playoffs leading goal scorer, only had one goal in the Final and was checked relentlessly by a combination of Henrik Zetterberg
and top-pair defensemen Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski
But there was no panic because Malkin was there to pick up the slack.
"It just probably motivates you even more to go out there and follow it up knowing that he is doing your part and you want to do yours," Crosby says.
So, while being down 2-0 and 3-2 in the Stanley Cup Final was no laughing matter, Malkin's laughter even when the Penguins were trailing in the series made the prospect a little less daunting.
"We know how big Game 4 is now because we lost it last year," Talbot said in between games in Pittsburgh. "It was hard to come back from a 3-1 deficit (in games). This year, we are just a little bit more aware. We know we need to win this game."
They did -- and although they were routed 5-0 in Game 5, they also won the two games after that. The Penguins lifted the Cup and Malkin etched his name on the Conn Smythe.