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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

When it comes to rookie sensations, Pittsburgh Penguins fans have been in luck.

The team has enjoyed many stellar rookies in recent seasons. Just last season, Sidney Crosby put his name in the NHL record books as the youngest player in league history to record 100 points in a season.

Now, this year, another rookie is enjoying another thrilling season – Evgeni Malkin.

The 20-year-old Russian star has been simply magical for the Penguins this year. Despite adjusting to a completely new culture and a different style of play on the ice, Malkin has flourished in the NHL. He leads all NHL rookies in scoring with 52 points (24+28) through 42 games.

 “I think, because we have such a young team, that it was easier for Malkin to adjust to playing in the NHL and with this team,” said Penguins radio color analyst Phil Bourque. “The whole environment of this dressing room is nearly kids around his age. They have a lot in common. Even though they really don’t speak the same language, they listen to the same kind of music and wear the same kind of clothes and on and on and on. I think that’s translated to him feeling comfortable on the ice because it’s such a great group of guys.”

Bourque, who won a pair of Stanley Cup championships with the Penguins in 1991 and ’92, has been impressed most with Malkin’s ability to find the back of the net.

“The first thing that comes to mind is how much of a sniper he is. Coming over from Russia, he was labeled as the ultimate two-way centerman that loves to play both ends of the ice and is a really good puck distributor,” he said. “As well as he does pass the puck, I think he’s just a natural sniper. He’s a gunner. I didn’t really know that about him. It wasn’t in the scouting report and I knew he had great offensive skill, which he’s shown. But, for a pretty lanky kid to be so incredibly gifted at skating and being able to shoot the puck is a dangerous combination.”

Malkin has been a consistent point producer for the Penguins after missing time early in the season with a shoulder injury. He began his rookie campaign by becoming the first player in 89 years to tally goals in each of his first six NHL games.

Before Malkin, only three players in NHL history had scored at least one goal in each of their first six (or more) games and all did so in 1917-18, the NHL’s inaugural season. Montreal’s Joe Malone, Ottawa’s Cy Denneny and Montreal’s Newsy Lalonde tallied goals their first 14, 12 and eight games, respectively.

And, ahead of Crosby’s scoring pace last season. Through 42 games, Crosby had 48 points (21+28), while Malkin has 52 (24+28). Looking back at two of the game’s greatest players in their rookie seasons at the same point – Wayne Gretzky had 62 points (23+39) through 42 games in 1979-80, while Mario Lemieux had 56 points (21+35) in 1984-85.

Crosby finished 2005-06 with 102 points (39+63) in 81 games. If Malkin plays in all 36 of the Penguins’ remaining games, he projects to wind up with 97 points (45+52) in 78 games played.

“He’s having an unbelievable year so far,” Bourque said. “What’s great about Malkin is that you’ll see the young guys have great games, but they will plateau and fall off a bit and that could easily go into a six- or eight-, or even some guys, a 10-game slide. That hasn’t happened for him. Whenever he’s taken a small step backward and had maybe a couple games where he’s looked just good, the next thing you know, he’ll look great for six or eight games. That’s really impressed me that he’s been able to realize when to step it up and he’s done it on pretty much a consistent basis looking at the halfway point here.”

Speaking of consistency, Crosby, only 19, has been a model of that in his sophomore season. He became the second teenager in NHL history to lead the league in scoring when his six-point game against Philadelphia on Dec. 13 put him at the top of the pack. He has not relinquished his lead, either. The only other teenager to hold the NHL lead in points at any time in the league’s modern era was Edmonton’s Wayne Gretzky, briefly near the end of the 1979-80 season and early in the 1980-81 campaign.

“That goes to show you what kind of character he has and what kind of will he has to be the best player in the league,” Bourque said. “He really doesn’t think of it as trying to be the top goal scorer or the top point guy or anything like that. For him, it’s so team-oriented that it’s just all about wins for him. He knows that if he is able to use the great gift that he has just to create offense, the chances of the team winning greatly outweigh any individual success. He certainly didn’t rest on his laurels from last year. He worked his tail off in the summer time to be able to do what he’s doing this year.”

Many observers realize Crosby didn’t just take a step forward this season – he jumped ahead. The statistics back up that claim. He leads the NHL with 72 points (24+48) in 43 games.

Crosby is right on the pace of Gretzky and Lemieux in their second seasons. Gretzky had 73 points (23+50) through the first 43 games of his second year in 1980-81, while Lemieux posted 72 points (25+47) through 43 games of the 1985-86 campaign.

Gretzky finished his sophomore year with 164 points (55+109) in 80 games, while Lemieux totaled 141 points (48+93) in 79 games. If Crosby plays in all 36 of the Penguins’ remaining games, his totals project to 133 points (44+89) in 79 games.

“Usually it’s a gradual step forward for a youngster, but he’s just taken giant leaps forward, in terms of what he’s been able to accomplish here in such a short period of time,” Bourque said. “I know as an announcer, I don’t mention it enough that he’s only 19 years old. It’s still incredible that he’s such a mature kid that really gets it on what it takes to be a great pro. His awareness on and off the ice is that of a 15- or 20-year veteran.”

Also of note, Crosby led all NHL players in scoring for the calendar year of 2006 with 118 points (37+81) in 78 games. As an 18-year-old rookie, Crosby tallied 60 points (20+40) in 44 games from January-April. In his sophomore campaign this season, the 19-year-old added 58 points (17+41) in 34 games from October to December. In addition, his 81 assists ranked second in 2006.

Yet, it’s not just about statistics for Crosby. For every highlight-reel goal he scores or pass he makes, Crosby does something else that turns heads.

“That’s the most-fun part of my job. Whether it’s watching practice or being at the games, to see what special things are going to happen from a young, hungry group of guys is awesome,” Bourque said. “Kind of the highlight of my job is to watch Sidney, especially. Malkin is incredible and I still love watching Mark Recchi and I know Fleury is going to make some sort of ridiculous save, but really the highlight of my job is when No. 87 is on the ice because I know he might do something I may have never seen or see again.”

Breaking down the stats:

(through 42 games)  G  A  PTS
Wayne Gretzky  23  39   62
Mario Lemieux  21  35   56
Evgeni Malkin  24  28   52
Sidney Crosby  21  27   48
Player Season  GP  G  A  PTS  PIM
Gretzky 1979-80  79  51  86  137   21
Crosby 2005-06  81  39  63  102  110
Lemieux 1984-85  73  43  57  100   54
*Malkin 2006-07  78  45  52    97   86


(through 43 games)  G  A  PTS
Wayne Gretzky  23  50   73
Mario Lemieux  25  47   72
Sidney Crosby  24  48   72
Sidney Crosby  24  48   72
Player Season  GP  G  A  PTS  PIM
Gretzky 1980-81  80  55  109  164   28
Lemieux 1985-86  79  48   93  141   43
*Crosby 2006-07  79  44   89  133   78


NHL leaders in 2006 calendar year

Player  Team  GP  G  A  PTS
Sidney Crosby  PIT  78  37  81  118
Joe Thornton  SJ  85  26  91  117
Jaromir Jagr  NYR  83  45  69  114
Alex Ovechkin  WSH  84  54  58  112
Teemu Selanne  ANA  83  45  64  109
Marian Hossa  ATL  81  46  56  102
Player Team  GP  A
Joe Thornton  SJ  85  91
Sidney Crosby  PIT  78  81
Marc Savard  ATL-BOS  79  70
Jaromir Jagr  NYR  83  69
Henrik Sedin  VAN  
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