Anyone who knows Penguins center Evgeni Malkin understands how passionate he is when it comes to his home country of Russia. Malkin feels an inner sense of pride and extra purpose when he is wearing the Team Russia jersey in international competition.
Malkin, 27, has played for Russia in World Juniors, World Championships and – on hockey’s biggest stage – the Olympics.
Though the patriotic Malkin had represented his country in the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympic Games, 2014 was different. This year’s games were played on his home turf in Sochi, Russia.
Malkin’s biggest hockey dream was to win an Olympic gold medal for his country while on Russian soil.
But that dream became a nightmare.
Malkin scored just one goal as Russia was eliminated from the competition in just five games. Malkin’s highest hopes ended with crushing disappointment.
Malkin returned to the United States dejected with the Olympic outcome still looming over him. The sting from Malkin’s broken heart seeped into his play on the ice.
In the first 10 games after returning from Sochi, Malkin scored just one goal – though he did compile seven assists.
But in the last two games, Malkin has looked like himself again. Flying all over the ice, creating chances and dominating. He scored two goals in Detroit on Thursday and followed that with a four-point game against Tampa Bay on Saturday afternoon. Malkin scored two goals in the third period and set up James Neal’s overtime game-winner.
So what finally helped Malkin snap back into form? Oh, just a conversation with a longtime friend.
“I wasn’t playing good after the Olympics. Talked a little bit with (Sidney Crosby),” Malkin said. “He helped me a lot because he understands my problem.”
Crosby, 26, knows all too well about the pressure that comes with the weight of an entire country on your shoulders. Crosby helped Canada win the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics when the games were held in Vancouver, Canada. Crosby had the same pressure in Sochi as captain of Canada.
But the outcome was different for Crosby, who ended both tournaments in wearing gold.
“I can definitely relate to having pressure and expectations, and I think (Malkin) puts a lot of pressure on himself,” Crosby said. “After (losing), that’s not something I’ve gone through, but I know that it wouldn’t be easy at all.”
In many ways, Crosby may have been the only player able to help Malkin. The two superstars have grown up together.
Malkin and Crosby both entered the NHL as teenagers and have shared every emotional high and low over the span of their hockey careers together.
The duo won a Stanley Cup championship in 2009, but also suffered painful elimination in the first round in 2012. Crosby and Malkin have won NHL MVPs and scoring titles, while also battling through scoring slumps and long-term injuries.
And through it all, Crosby and Malkin have always had each other.
Crosby could see how hard Malkin was taking the Olympic loss. And the Penguins captain reached out to Malkin as both a teammate and a friend.
“You want to just talk about whatever it is he wants to talk about,” Crosby said. “I just wanted to talk to him and see how things were going. I knew it was probably difficult coming off the Olympics and having those expectations. Enough time had passed that I felt comfortable talking to him about it. It’s not something I wanted to bring up right away.”
Crosby waited until three days ago. Finally, he approached Malkin. The cathartic conversation helped Malkin move forward and find new life.
“He’s not the kind of guy that’s just going to go to someone and start talking about it,” Crosby said. “Just to kind of talk things out sometimes helps.”
The captain saw one of his teammates hurting and he wanted to help Malkin heal the wounds.
“You care about your teammates and you want to see them happy,” Crosby said. “You want to see them having fun out there. So I think that’s the important thing.”
Malkin is certainly appreciative of Crosby’s empathetic ear.
“(Russia) lost and (Crosby) supported me and helped me, and after we talked,” Malkin said, “I felt so much better. And started playing better.”
Written by Michelle Crechiolo and Sam Kasan